All glory, laud, and honor

Today is Palm Sunday. While I have not actively observed Lent in some while, I am acutely aware that today churches are empty because of the coronavirus, when they should be carrying out one of the most dramatic liturgies of the year. (The churches that were full today, in defiance of public health orders, are most likely those who don’t follow the liturgical year very closely, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

I have said for years, only slightly in jest, that everything I need to know about magic I learned in church. You want to achieve an altered state of consciousness? I highly recommend putting on special clothes and walking in a figure-eight, chanting repetitively, while someone proceeds you with a pot of hot coals that is streaming frankincense smoke. (Just keep a reasonable distance between yourself and overenthusiastic pot-swingers.) Before I read of witches re-enacting ritual combats or plunging the athame into the chalice, I was chanting crowd responses in dramatic singings of Jesus’ Passion from the Gospels and watching the priest plunge the lighted Paschal candle three times into the fresh waters of the baptismal font.

The church I wound up attending for between 20 and 25 years was a High Episcopal church, that is, one whose liturgy resembled the Roman Catholic church’s rather than the services of our Methodist cousins. We had weekly communion in a time when that was still rare and called it Mass. We observed Holy Week and Easter as well as Christmastime with elaborate special liturgies. We called our priest “Father” plus his last name and he wore silk damask chasubles at the altar. In Lent we had Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with the choir on Wednesday nights, and just Stations on Saturday mornings, attended by the altar guild ladies and a handful of kids, including me. When he retired and we got a new priest, around the time I was seventeen, new priest was even more Catholic and elaborated the liturgy still more, which was fine with me because I conceived a mad crush on him pretty much the first time I laid eyes on him.

When I walk into a holy space, I expect to see rich colors and lighted candles, to smell beeswax and incense, to hear chanting and heightened language, to walk in processions and make sacred gestures. I expect to kneel, stand, or sit at certain times. (Alas, when I go to church nowadays, I sit through most of it.) Palm Sunday at my childhood church got every person in the pews who could walk processing round the church singing, waving the long fronds of palm trees that would be treasured at home for a year afterward, then returned to the church and burnt to become the ashes of a new Ash Wednesday. A few years ago, I had the thrill of starting our Palm Sunday liturgy at another Episcopal church out in a city park and processing through the streets to the church, singing and waving our palms.

My childhood church was a small parish, a small physical plant, and not particularly rich. My Aunt Margaret gave me money for the collection plate, and we held parish dinners maybe six times a year, crab cakes, fried chicken, spaghetti, cooked and served by parishioners and attended by much of the neighborhood, to raise funds. Yet we put on a pretty good show for the church’s wheel of the year, with our silk vestments and beeswax candles, frankincense and myrrh and holy water. If you want to lure me into your religion, you have to do at least that well.

A Reader’s Digest Condensed Book

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, or even just for the last three days, you have probably figured out that I’ve had an intense interest in religion from a very early age. I was interested in my religion, my culture’s religion, the Anglican Christianity of the Episcopal Church, but also in the religions of the past, embodied in the myths of Greece and Rome, Egypt, the Norse lands, and the Celtic peoples, and in other living religions of the present, Judaism and Hinduism in particular. At the same time, I was a willing participant in church-going as a child and a member of my church’s small volunteer choir.

I discovered an interest in one particular kind of religion fairly early on. My grandmother belonged to a “Golden Age Club”, a city-sponsored social group for elderly people that met at the neighborhood recreation center. Besides their weekly meetings (I’m still not sure what they did there), they went to dances, took bus trips, played bingo with the residents of the local nursing home, had lunch after meetings, and held fundraisers where they sold handicrafts, knick-knacks, candies and baked goods, and used books.

I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a pile of books for sale in my entire life, not since I was able to walk. Amongst the books donated for sale was a peculiar kind of book: the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. In one fat volume, you might have three or four books, both novels and nonfiction, carefully “condensed”, that is, abridged for faster, easier reading. I acquired a bunch of these books, probably for something like ten cents apiece. I remember one volume had selections from James Michener’s Hawaii; another had an abridgment of Coretta Scott King’s memoir, my first introduction to ideas of racism, social injustice, and protest. There was a funny story, the name of which I had forgotten, about a large family whose car broke down by the side of the road, and rather than getting the car going again, they inadvertently created a whole town around it. I do remember that the narrator said of the family babysitter, a clever and resourceful young woman, that she “warn’t really smart, she just read a lot of books.” 1259908657.0.m

But the condensed book that made the most impression on me was a novel called In This House of Brede. I’ve blogged more than once about discovering this story at the age of nine or ten, reading the abridged version, then finding the complete novel in (where else) my neighborhood library and reading it over and over. It is the story of an English woman, Philippa Talbot, who seems to have it all. A widow, she has risen to a high position in government, unusual for a woman in the 1950s. She has a quiet past, an excellent salary, and a very quiet affair with a coworker that is emotionally satisfying. And as the novel begins, she leaves it all behind at the age of forty to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.

It was not that real-life nuns figured anywhere in my childhood. But I was drawn into this book, which created a whole world as rich and detailed, unusual and enchanting as any fantasy novel’s otherworld, a world of sacred hours, special clothing, exotic rituals, bits of Latin. It was also a world populated almost entirely by women, and dominated by women. A few men pass through the novel’s pages: the retiring priest who says Mass for the nuns and hears their confessions; a charismatic sculptor engaged to redecorate the chapel; Philippa’s former supervisor, the only friend who has any grasp of her monastic vocation. But they are relatively unimportant compared to the parade of female characters, the nuns and sisters with their differing personalities, interests, talents, and faults. There are plenty of faults on display, including Philippa’s wounded past and a too-passionate friendship between an older and a younger nun, but that makes the story only more engaging.

I took away two things from this book. One was the Benedictine vision of a community ordered around prayer, liturgy, silence, and creative work, living an undramatic and sustainable spiritual life. The other was the portrayal of women who were as passionate about religion, about God, as I found myself to be, who were flawed, ordinary, sometimes outright sinful, but psychologically healthy. I have come across few novels about nuns besides this one that do not depict religious faith and fervor as some kind of pathology, or religion itself as a kind of scam.

I think my inner monastic was born the first time I read of Philippa Talbot and her life as a Benedictine of Brede Abbey, and she is still very alive and healthy in my psyche, waiting for her chance to be abbess of my life.

Your friendly neighborhood library branch

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One of the great good fortunes of my childhood was living about two blocks away from the neighborhood library, a branch of the same system I work for now. In those days when free-range children were the norm, I could go to the library on my own, spend hours there reading and chatting up the librarians, then come home in time for dinner, carrying my books on my head because they were heavy and bulky for my arms. (My mother used to call the circulation desk and tell them to send me home, or I would just have stayed till closing, I guess.)

I was also fortunate to have two librarians, one for the children’s collection and one for the adult, who were patient and encouraging and befriended me. I was allowed to have an adult library card at the age of thirteen, which meant I could check out as many books from the adult collection as I liked. I read a lot of nonfiction from the adult side–mythology, comparative religion, archaeology, anything about the ancient world and the Middle Ages.

I was thirteen the day Mrs. H., the adult librarian, handed me a thin trade paperback book with some variation of the good librarian’s mantra, “I know what you like and I think you’ll like this.” It was a red book with an abstract design in thin gold lines on the cover, and the title was The Spiral Dance.

Over forty years later, I still look back on my first encounter with that book as a life-changing moment. The main thing that I took away from it, I think, was that people were still worshipping the gods–the same gods I had been reading stories about for years, the same gods worshiped by people in ancient Greece and Egypt and Rome. Of course at the time I accepted the origin story of witchcraft being the secret tradition that went back to the Stone Age and so forth, but my reaction to reading the book was not to craft spells and hold full moon rituals, but to write poetry for and about the gods.

The Spiral Dance also made a deep imprint on me in introducing me to what became the Reclaiming tradition of witchcraft, with its intertwining of ecofeminist politics, witchcraft, expressive arts, and an insistence that every person can be their own spiritual authority, every person is capable of magic to some degree. It shaped my idea of what “witchcraft” as a contemporary religious movement is, so that my default for the Craft is Reclaiming, and the Faery or Feri Craft taught by Victor and Cora Anderson that lies behind it, rather than British Traditional Wicca or traditional/sabbatic witchcraft.

I read a lot of the other feminist spirituality, Goddess-oriented books of that era, too. Starhawk pointed me to Merlin Stone and When God Was A Woman and Margaret Murray on the witch-cult and, of course, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Goddess spirituality was a phase I went through, somewhat uncomfortably, but what stayed with me was the knowledge that people were worshiping the old gods and making magic and that there were alternatives to the Church, to Jesus–maybe even to everything.

Jesus and Prometheus and other stories

I had two Bibles as a child, that is, Children’s Bibles, selected stories from the Old and New Testaments with illustrations. I remember one of them as having a mostly white cover and a lot of white space on the pages, with simple, cheerful drawings that looked like they were done in crayon by a very clever child. I think that Bible contained mostly nice stories about Jesus retold in simple language.

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The other Bible I remember was for older, more sophisticated readers, with more nearly “Biblical” language, if I’m remembering correctly. There was little white space; every page had both text and pictures, and the illustrations were rather like 19th-century paintings of Bible scenes, or of Cecil B. DeMille Bible movies. It had judicious selections from the whole of the Old Testament, even the portions that aren’t stories, such as the Psalms and the prophets. I don’t remember, however, whether it had selections from the individual Gospels, or just a Story of Jesus, with a few bits of Paul’s letters and Revelations for completeness.

What I do remember vividly were the paintings of Jesus. Jesus, quite frankly, would not have been out of place in an episode of Xena or Hercules. He was depicted as a Hollywood-handsome blond with intensely blue eyes, having fairly long hair and a short beard. In the large illustration of his baptism by John, he was standing thigh-deep in the water, bare to the waist with his white robe gathered around his loins (to use the Biblical expression), and displaying a fairly impressive set of abs. Yes, I am saying that to a girl of eight or ten years old, Jesus in her “children’s Bible” was a hottie. (And then came the miniseries of Jesus of Nazareth and the hottie Jesus played by a skinny Welshman with intense, dazzling blue-green eyes.)

provensenilloThere was another book that came into my hands around the same time, although it may have come from the library rather than being something bought for me. It was a collection of myths and legends retold, and I believe that it was either The Iliad & the Odyssey adapted by Jane Werner or else The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, both of which were illustrated by Martin and Alice Provensen. Unlike the better-known retellings by Edgar and Ingrid D’Aulaire, the Provensen books are no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon.

It was in this book that I came across the story of Prometheus, who brought man a gift the gods had not intended to give him and was punished in a cruel and grisly way. As you probably know, Prometheus was bound to a great rock, and every day a bird, in some versions an eagle, but in others a vulture, came and ate out his liver, causing him great pain. But Prometheus, being an immortal Titan, did not die of this, but instead grew back his liver every night, only to face the same attack the next day.

I have a distinct memory of lying in bed as a fairly small child, looking toward my closet in the dark, and fearing that a vulture might come out of the closet and eat my liver. I am quite sure that I didn’t know where my liver was in my body, or what kind of bird a vulture is. But I remember that something about the combination of the story and the illustrations frightened me deeply. Unlike the D’Aulaire’s books, unlike my children’s Bibles, I did not read that book a second time.

Pauline-Baynes-Mr-TumnusMy children’s Bibles, the Bible readings in church, and the many books of mythology I read as a child all offered me stories. Not all of those stories were comforting and safe, like the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and welcoming little children and telling curious stories about lost sheep and wayward sons. I’m not sure that my mind made a distinction between the stories of Jesus and the stories of Prometheus, or Athena punishing Arachne, or Odin binding Loki, as true vs. false. The Episcopal Church did not then insist on a literal understanding of the Bible any more than it does now, and nobody was telling me that Jesus was real but Prometheus wasn’t. What the Church seemed to be telling me was to pay attention to stories, and to language, to how stories are told, and whether they are true to our experience, whether they provide some kind of wisdom. I learned that lesson, learned to tell stories, and have continued to pay attention to them ever since.

A prayer book and a hymnal

The Church of the Advent, Baltimore

My first memory of anything religious is singing in the choir of a Lutheran church. I was six or seven years old at the time, one year younger than the usual minimum age for choir singers. I conclude from this that I had two skills that were needed: The ability to sing on pitch, and the ability to read the words of the hymns better than most children my age.

I don’t remember any men or boys in this choir, and I don’t think we sang every Sunday. But there was singing and I wanted to be involved with that, more than I wanted to be in the Sunday school classes we must have had. I have a memory of practicing hymns around the piano and another memory of putting on some kind of vestments, including a little red cap, and walking in two lines out into the sunshine and wind, across a yard, into the church, to sing a couple of hymns during the service.

When I was seven, my sister got married; she was eighteen and eager to be away from our mother and in charge of her own life. After that I didn’t go to the Lutheran church any more because my sister wasn’t around to take me. My mother felt it was important that her children go to church, but not important enough to go to church herself. Her Sunday mornings were for recovering from her late-night Saturday outings with my dad.

A couple of years passed before my mother decreed that I would start going to an Episcopal church. It was just one block away from us, two streets to cross, but I was not allowed to go unescorted. An elderly lady whose name I am sorry to have forgotten knocked at the door on Sunday mornings and walked with me to the back door of the church, which led into the small parish hall. I’m not sure now why my mother was so fussy about this, as I spent plenty of time on weekends and in the summer ranging around the neighborhood without any adults holding my hand. In any case I was still walking to church with our neighbor lady almost up to my teens.

Another couple of years passed, I think, before I auditioned for the choir of my new church and was accepted. By the time I was nine or ten, I had in my hands two of the most important influences on my spiritual life: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Hymnal 1940.

POEM: Hymns to the Forest God #31

O Forest God, may I be held in your memory. 

May my true name, unknown to me, be woven 

into your song. May I always be welcome 

in your woods. May there always be a place 

for me in your dance. May I find my way 

to your secret dwelling in times of need. 

May I be safe beneath the shadow of 

your antlers. May I be guided by your voice 

and your song. May I count tree and 

vine and mushroom among my allies. 

May the dove and the fox, the rabbit 

and the wolf, the hawk and the deer 

be my coven. May I never forget them 

or you. May I remember that the earth 

lives always in your dream as it was 

meant to be, and may you dream that dream 

for us until we are ready to dream it, too,

and make it real before our waking eyes.

POEM: Hymns to the Forest God #30

Every day that I think of you, lord, 

a tree grows in my heart. Every time 

that I smile at the thought of you, 

a clump of mushrooms fruits in the rain.

Every time that I pass a tree on the street 

or mushrooms in a row beneath a bush, 

I think of you and a bird builds its nest 

in a place where no one can touch it, 

where it will be safe. Each day the bird 

lays one perfect egg, delicately speckled 

like its feathers, and each egg is a name 

for you that I turn over in my pocket 

like a smooth stone. The coolness and 

smoothness of the stone in my hand is 

the touch of your hand, and the flash 

of its colors the glance of your eyes, 

when I come into the forest seeking you

and find you waiting, smiling, thinking of me.

POEM: Hymns to the Forest God #29

Forest God

Lord of the Animals

Deer-man

Shapeshifter

Witch father

Shaman god

Green man

Wolf-skin

Friend of foxes

Antlered god

Him of many names

Most ancient god

Haunter of dreams

Older than civilization

Master of the wild

Man, beast, and god

Dancer in the great dance

Singer of the primal song

One who watches and waits

Guardian of the wood

Spirit of place 

Shelter for the homeless

Silence of peace

Hail to you, lord

Bless me, Forest God

POEM: Hymns to the Forest God #28

There are bones beneath the floor of the forest. 

There are bones unburied, scraped clean by hungry teeth, 

the predator and then the scavenger. There is blood shed, 

soaked into the complex earth. Scat gets buried, but 

the carcases of the dead lie in the underbrush. Flowers 

push up through the fine bones of dead birds, pushing 

aside the dry feathers. There are levels and layers of 

death underneath all that life, the green leaf and 

the sparkling stream, the white mushroom and 

the red berry, death and dirt and decay. There is 

no comfort in the silence of life reduced to rotting meat.

 

Bones make flutes, the god tells me. Sinews make 

strings. Branches stretch strings into harp and lyre, 

not just bow and arrow. Dead flesh becomes meat, 

mushroom adds flavor. The forest remembers, 

layers and levels of memory, the dead, the unborn, 

the worlds that were and will be overlapping 

one another. Come, sit here, says the Forest God.

Sit with me and sing of what is mourned.

FIC: “Spring Frolic”

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Image by diapicard from Pixabay

Spring Frolic (1259 words) by MToddWebster
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Andrew Hozier-Byrne (Musician), Forest God – Fandom
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Forest God/Fox
Additional Tags: Spring, Animal Transformation, Shapeshifting, Flowers, Anal Sex
Series: Part 6 of Tales of the Forest God
Summary:

The flowers are in bloom, and the fox is feeling frisky.

Please note, this is explicit erotica featuring a male/male pairing. If that’s not your cuppa, the back button is your friend!

POEM: Hymns to the Forest God #27

I would go and make a greenwood marriage–

find a lover and lie down under the leaves. 

The Forest God blesses all couples and more 

than couples who choose to join in his domain.

Man with woman or man with man, woman 

with woman or three or four, as long as 

there is free will, there is freedom to love 

and live under his protection. And there is 

solace also for the heart that desires solitude, 

to be away from humankind, to speak only 

with the trees and hear the stream running, 

the birds calling. There is room for love 

and aloneness beneath the green roof of the forest, 

within the compass of the Forest God, and 

my heart dreams of both blessings, to be 

found resting in the god’s embrace.

At last, a story completed

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Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Children of the Forest God (14701 words) by MToddWebster
Chapters: 3/3
Fandom: Andrew Hozier-Byrne (Musician), Forest God – Fandom
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Relationships: Forest God & his offspring
Additional Tags: forest god, Parent-Child Relationship, Folklore, Celtic Mythology & Folklore, Pagan Gods, Shapeshifting, Animal Transformation, Minor Violence, Beating, Public Humiliation, Threats of Rape/Non-Con
Series: Part 5 of Tales of the Forest God
Summary:

Three children of the Forest God, in three different times and places, seek their true father in the woods.

I have uploaded the final chapter and this story is complete!