Friday, December 21, 2007

Midwinter Musing

On December 10th I attended one of MIC's quarterly retreat days. They haven't been going on for long, and I've managed to make it to most of them. I've mentioned them in this blog.

December's retreat, at Santa Sabina Center, was on theme of light and dark. The teachers were Rabbi Stacy Friedman from Congregation Rodef Shalom and the Rev. Tim Mooney from the Lloyd Center at SF Theological Seminary (Presbyterian). Tim's primary pursuit is painting; his "Winter Solstice" appears above.

The better part of the day at these retreats is spent in silence. Unless one has a regular practice of meditation, retreats are the only time most of us manage to take the time to do it. I find it very restorative.

Stacy opened by speaking of the candles of the menorah and of Hanukkah in general, and how glad she was that this year it occurred at a different time than Christmas. She mentioned a medieval debate between two rabbis. One rabbi thought all eight candles, plus the extra shamash candle, should be lit at the beginning of Hanukkah, with one being extinguished each night until there was only one light left. This memorializes the story of having only enough oil for eight nights, and then the light rant out. The other rabbi, Hillel, argued for light one more candle each nights so that the light grew. Most of us know that Rabbi Hillel's practice was adopted.

In the morning, before we retreated into silence, we were each asked to think about what we might be looking for and what we might bring to the retreat. These were not spoken. I decided I was looking for models of eldership as they have manifested in other religions and religious communities. I considered that I brought to this forum a freshness due to the fact that our Pagan religions are 'new,' and an openness to learning.

We remained in silence until mid-afternoon. Art supplies were available for those who wished to explore with those media. We could roam the grounds, the courtyard, the chapel, the library, the 'pillow room,' the 'rose room' and all the other spaces at Santa Sabina that were neither administrative nor lodging.

During the feedback portion after we broke our silence, several participants spokes of profound revelations they'd experienced, from the time spent in silence, from the painting Tim brought out towards the end, and from the words spoken by the two instructors and other participants. This very dark painting portrayed a faceless naked woman holding a small bright candle just beneath her belly. The flame illuminated her belly and forearms, and radiated out to show her form and nothing more. She could have been standing anywhere.

I offered that we Pagans are concerned with honoring cycles: the cycles of life and the seasonal cycles, all kinds of cycles. That we assemble eight times a year to celebrate the turning of the Wheel together; that four of those sacred dates were at the points of the solar year, the Solstices and the Equinoxes. I said that at this time of year I considered that on Midwinter eve we began to sit vigil with the Great Mother -- Mary, if you will -- as she was going into the world of spirit on this longest night of the year to retrieve another soul, that of her divine son, to bring him safely to this plane of existence. I said we tell stories, sing, bake cookies, sit around the hearth fire, as we honor her during her hours of labor to give birth. Then before dawn we go outside onto the hills to sing and rejoice at the Sun's rebirth.

Later, after the retreat was over, several people told me how much they appreciated that perspective and loved the story. The director of MIC told me how glad they were to have a Pagan presence and that, when other interfaith groups learned of this, how 'cool' they thought that was. "Cool" is an exact quote.

What did I come away with, you might ask? I came to realize, yet again, that I really know more than I think I know, and that we Pagans have much to bring to a mutually respectful interfaith environment.

So I offer this story to readers. May all enjoy a splendid return of the Sun and a healthy, happy, prosperous and green New Year!


Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Thank you for sharing this--I wish I could have shared the spirit of this wonderful event.

Bright blessings!

Jane said...

I love your description of the Solstice ritual. May the returning light bring you strength, health, prosperity and safety.

Medusa said...

Some of us see the increasing light of the Menorah candles as being consistent with the theme of increasing light in other winter holidays. Also, the Menorah is related to Tree symbolism (see, for examples, essays by Asphodel P. Long on

Unknown said...

Thanks for've inspired me to add "attend a retreat" to my list of things to do this coming year.


Anonymous said...

I get some of the same reactions when attending my husbands church events wearing a pentagram. At least from those that know what it is. Sometimes I just get forced smiles.