Lunasa – Sacred Work

The name of this festival is often written as Lughnasadh, but from now on I’m going to use the modernized Irish spelling: Lunasa. This rendering gives a better impression of how to pronounce it and is easier to remember and write.

Lunasa represents the beginning of the harvest season. It is often described as the grain harvest, but local experiences will vary based on ecology, climate, and weather. Whatever the precise agricultural situation is, Lunasa marks the turning of the year towards autumn. We’re still in the heat, but we know the season will change, and it’s time to think about how to deal with that future and the coming winter.

Harvest festivals have a long history in a huge variety of cultures. Having enough food is a good thing to celebrate, and it’s downright fun. Having enough to get through the next season and be able to make both beer and bread is even better, and definitely deserves a party. But in this day and age few of us harvest any kind of food with our own hands, and although gardens are growing in popularity, only a tiny proportion of us harvest the kind of bounty that provides security through the cold months. I think one result is that we tend to focus on the mystical meanings of bread and life while ignoring the seemingly mundane but fundamentally necessary part of the harvest: work.

Harvesting historically has been hard, sustained physical labor which was utterly vital to the survival of not just the laborers themselves but also everyone they knew and maybe more. Yes, harvest festivals are a way to celebrate the results of that work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those festivals were originally meant to honor the work itself as well. The amount of work accomplished – how much of the grain was brought in before the onset of the ever-uncertain autumn rains – made a discernable difference to everyone’s lives. Getting that work done, and done quickly and well, was vitally important. The more I think about it, I think festivals weren’t just honoring the person of John Barleycorn but the people who brought him in.

After all, work doesn’t exist without workers. In a harvest festival, the community comes together to celebrate; maybe they were celebrating each other as much as the goodness on the table. Since we do talk about the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth, including how they are seen in food, it’s easy to imagine – and to romanticize – harvesting as a kind of sacred work, especially because most of us don’t have to do it.

We need to face the facts, though: in the US, a tremendous amount of food is harvested by workers who have little to no legal protection and suffer despicable labor abuses as a result. Such a high proportion of them are undocumented immigrants that when some southern states implemented harsh anti-immigrant laws, farmers were unable to find enough workers and food literally rotted in the fields. Workers who do find jobs are subject to being paid a pittance for work performed in totally unsupervised conditions. Clearly, we are not treating this harvesting work as sacred.
If we want to honor a sacred understanding of Lunasa, it is imperative that we acknowledge this problem and begin to engage with it. I’m not going to begin to attempt to speak to the experiences of farm workers; they are an extremely diverse group of people with equally diverse experiences and opinions. But we can and should think about how to treat their work as sacred – and I mean a lot more than simply murmuring a prayer before eating.

In experiences closer to my own, I know that even without outright abuses, there are plenty of problems. Today’s complex economy creates the opportunity for abusing farm workers because their work is technically “unskilled,” while the diversified, stratified, post-industrial service economy tends to reserve more pay for things that take more skill or education, drawing all but the very least privileged away from physical labor. Even though it’s more lucrative, though, I venture that many of us would not instinctively describe the work of a department store sales associate or cellular billing data analyst as sacred.

Perhaps that’s why we like to romanticize the work of the harvest; it gives us a role, even if only a supporting one, in the myth of John Barleycorn. It lets us know where we belong in the sacred story at a time when we crave meaningful work done for its own sake. But even in the most basic subsistence farming, not everyone in a community goes out to reap and bind grain in the fields. A truly communal festival should include everyone.

All of this leads me to ask: what is work?

When I want to talk about sacred work, it’s not acceptable to define work purely by economics; it’s not just something we do that makes money. There is work that leaves us utterly numb but puts food on the table – and harvesting can fall into that category – and there is work that invigorates us, that aligns with our most important goals and does real good in the world, but pays no money at all. With millions of people searching for jobs that don’t exist, many more millions working at jobs that undervalue their efforts, we cannot rely on a dysfunctional economy rife with inequality to indicate what is or is not valuable work.

So what is it that we can honor as sacred which reflects the values of Wicca and Paganism being acted out in the world?

More than anything else, my understanding of Wicca means living in relationship. We are doing sacred work when we honor our relationships with our work, when we reaffirm and renew relationships with our work.

This includes even actions that aren’t done directly for another person. I was mulling over this topic while going about some of the domestic tasks of everyday life. Scooping the litterbox seems like the very definition of what is not sacred. But when I reflected on it, I found that my understanding of the task makes a difference. When I do chores because I “have to,” or because I feel guilty about not doing them, they seem utterly mundane, and they even feel like something that takes up time I wish I could use to do this mythical sacred work.

My mind kept returning to a line from the Charge of the Goddess that I focused on for Beltane:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

I can’t say that scooping the litterbox becomes an act of pleasure, but it can be an act of love: love for my cats, yes, but also love for my spouse and myself so that we can enjoy the pleasure of the cats’ companionship in a clean and pleasant environment.

If I can find a nugget – however small – of love and pleasure in a piece of drudgery, how much more can be found in the work of an artist whose relationships with his medium, with his muse, with the world in general, are manifested in a creative way? Although she may not seem to be relating to another person, she can be living in relationship and honoring those relationships as part of her sacred work.

This shifting of awareness or intent is not going to heal our fractured world of work with the wave of an imaginary magic wand. It’s not going to redeem the drudgery of a job done solely for economic reasons, and it certainly won’t repair the harm done by inequality and abuse. But it might point the way towards how we can change the world and ourselves, teaching us to honor workers and their work, in their myriad forms.

Paganism today is often thought of as an “alternative” form of spirituality, and this label has some truth to it. I hope that Paganism isn’t just an alternative but that it helps us create alternatives. For people whose practice is earth-centered but live in an urban environment, Paganism can help them recognize the coexistence of the “natural” and the human environements and also encourage them to move their lives in more sustainable directions. Perhaps there are alternatives to be found here as well.

Perhaps we can create an alternative vision of work that doesn’t deny the realities of post-industrial capitalism and consumerism in the “First World” today, but helps us create meaningful actions, responses, and relationships. We can examine our experiences to find and make more opportunities for meaningful, even sacred, work for ourselves. And we should certainly work to change our society to one where everyone has those opportunities: where no one is hungry, or homeless, or marginalized. Especially the people who do the sacred work of harvesting.

Finally, this alternative vision calls on us to do a particular kind of sacred work: sharing. This is, deep down, one of the fundamental ways to work in relationship. If we are looking for sacred work, then sharing is the act of grace that blesses what we have done by confirming its value for and with others. It makes the work sacred – and that is the real meaning of sacrifice.

Two upcoming events: Sacred Space and Fertile Ground

I will be presenting at Sacred Space conference on Saturday, March 15th, at 10am, with a short talk and then ritual to the goddess Columbia:

Centered on the goddess Columbia, a personification of the United States who lends her name to our capital district, this ritual presents her as a modern-day version of Athena. After an introduction describing her background and symbols, we will approach her in ritual and hear from five of her aspects calling us to honor the values she embodies. Participants will have the opportunity to respond to these calls by making personal commitments to Columbia for honesty, growth, empathy, groundedness, and community.

Registration for Sacred Space is discounted through Friday!

I will also be presenting multiple new workshops at Fertile Ground Gathering over the weekend of May 8-11. Register by Friday to get the early-bird discount!

Review of Sacred Space 2013

Sacred Space lives up to its description as a conference for intermediate to advanced esoteric and magical practitioners. That’s pretty high praise, when you think about it.

The draw at Sacred Space is the presentations and rituals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing chance to connect with old and new friends from around the region and more, and the interactions and chance talks or meals together are fantastic, but an introvert who didn’t know very many people could go to Sacred Space and get a lot out of it without any of that happening, if she was interested in intermediate to advanced ideas and practices.

What you won’t see, by and large, at Sacred Space, is the kind of lazy intellectual “recycling” that keeps us awash in Wicca 101 part the kajillionth and yet sparsely prepared for Wicca 201 or practicing in the real world. Many of the presenters at Sacred Space are deeply involved in their subject material. As an academic myself, I especially appreciate it when people have a deep intellectual grasp of their subject, whether that’s reflected in reading ancient texts or assimilating a breadth of current material, or serious study across traditions.

When Gwendolyn Reece presented on Athena, for example, her strong grasp of the ancient texts was synthesized with her own perspective through Kabala, resulting not just a skilled retelling of some of the myths, but some interesting suggestions for alternative possible meanings, and she took care to differentiate one from the other.

I can also see and appreciate that most presenters at Sacred Space have a richness of experience measured not just in years of practice but in the ways they’ve put their ideas into action in the world. You can be fairly sure that a presentation at Sacred Space will not be someone’s rehashing of just one book they read, or a mismash of someone else’s blog posts half-digested and regurgitated at random.

Christopher Penzcak’s presentation related to his book on the 12 Gates of Witchcraft, for example, showed the way he worked to synthesize the breadth of his experience. He explicitly said that he encourages his students to cross-train outside their natural comfort zones in terms of magical techniques, and he shared a lot of comparing and contrasting ideas in different areas. The only downside was that he spent so much time on the background of his topic that he really only touched on about half of his 12 categories; I wish he had gauged his use of time better in that talk.

Sacred Space also tries to be fairly broad in its coverage. Having Luisah Teish as a featured presenter this year brought in an emphasis on the African Diaspora traditions, for example. They bring in featured presenters from outside the region to give us in this area a taste of Paganism from other centers, which makes it a great opportunity for people who otherwise wouldn’t get to see West Coast teachers, for example.

There are usually a fair number of folks from the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel; I get the strong impression that ASW deliberately fosters the kind of intellectual engagement with Wicca and the Western mystery traditions in general that prepares its members to present here, and they do credit to their tradition when they do, but this is not “ASW’s conference.” One of the things I have very much enjoyed, though, is when ASW pulls people together to do rituals, because they put a lot of work into presenting good rituals, and I encourage you to check them out if you ever attend. Maggi Setti’s ritual to Brigid drew on lots of different pieces of symbolism, and I think a lot of the benefit to me from that ritual is going to be returning to those symbols and contemplating them at different times and in different contexts.

Another amazing ritual is the Conjure Dance. This is a unique opportunity to enjoy wonderful drummers and chants and to see and make offerings to deities and powers from all over the world. That in and of itself would be both a good party and an education. This setting, though, is the foundation for a powerful possession ritual. It’s very difficult to describe, but well worth experiencing.

One of the things Sacred Space does not focus on is vending. Don’t get me wrong – there are vendors, and quite good ones, at Sacred Space. I get more interesting and unusual high-quality stones there than just about anywhere else, and there was some amazing art. But shopping opportunities are secondary to providing a solid conference in terms of quality presentations, so if you think you’re coming to Pagan Ren Faire, you’ll be disappointed.

My only real frustrations at Sacred Space had to do with the hotel hosting the conference. Just like any conference-at-hotel situation, there are apt to be bottlenecks at mealtimes as everyone tries to squeeze in breakfast or lunch during the same time period. The Holiday Inn we were at did not handle these things very well, and since it’s a distinctly suburban location, the only alternatives require a car. I would encourage people attending to plan ahead for those issues, pack some snacks, and do a lot of deep breathing. The influx of several youth hockey groups on Friday and Saturday also led to some interesting dissonances; that wasn’t even the hotel’s fault, and from what I heard, they tried to communicate between the groups where needed, mostly requests for quiet.

On the whole, Sacred Space is a well-crafted, high-quality regional conference that draws featured presenters from across the country to present on topics of interest to intermediate to advanced magical and esoteric practitioners and to create engaging rituals.

NB: I am obviously not objective, since I also presented at Sacred Space this year. I did my best to leave that out of consideration.