Sunday, November 29, 2009
Echoes of a past life: Healing Darkness
Here's another piece from the Queer Pagans 'Zine: the longest one I wrote. It covers a lot of ground, touching on some pivotal moments in my spiritual journey. It's interesting to me that I chose not to identify the specific goddess archetype I felt I was interacting with until the last portion of this piece. Although I felt devoted to Hecate/Hekate, it became less and less important to me that the spiritual energy I experienced bore any name tied to a specific pantheon. My spiritual practice yielded more information about this divine force than my attempted research of the historical record of the ancient Hellenes or medieval witches. It's also ironically funny to me that as far removed as I now feel from the Neo-Pagan path and its community, the tattoo of Hecate's wheel that I had etched into my arm in this period is still there begging explanation from those who see it and ask about it. Anyway, the word "God" is much shorter and less suspicious, and if it causes its own kind of confusion, these days I much prefer it to the more exotic and complicatedly capitalized constructions of these earlier words. Note: I've added a few parenthetical details here and there in this piece to flesh out details, noted in italics.
Healing Darkness: A Meditation in Three Parts
By Ian Scott Horst
from QP #15, Halloween 9994 [Fall 1994]
Part 1: Vows and Promises
Of all the God/dess, one came to me first, and for that I will be ever grateful.
A friend of mine lay dying. He was thin, and his skin seemed tight and brittle. I tried talking to him, but I wasn't sure he heard me. His gaze was no longer full of the man I knew, but something focused far away from where I sat, holding his flaccid hand.
It would make a great story to say that as we sat there, a goddess descended into the hospital room, bore him aloft, and held me in her healing embrace. But it was not like that at all.
He died a couple days later and his family repossessed his body, shunned his gay friends and lovers at his funeral, and tried to throw his lover out of their apartment.
John's death happened at a time when I was trying to figure out a lot of things for myself. I found myself outliving some important friends and many treasured beliefs and unsure of my footing. The spiritual crisis I had been dodging for several years descended upon me, forcing me to examine who I was, what I was doing, what I wanted, why I was.
The short version of the story is that I discovered Paganism, and immersed myself it it, this new part of myself aware and longing for satiety. But I didn't understand a lot of things: while the Divine presence was easy enough to feel alone under a Full Moon in Prospect Park, it was harder to pull from the myths and rituals of the traditions I was trying to understand.
Then I discovered Her. As John [Moroney -ish]'s death became a part of my life, I realized that death is always a part of life. In fact, without death there is no life. Without the darkness there is no lightness. I meditated on these things and pondered what happens in the crossroads.
And all of a sudden, that which had felt abstract about Paganism became real. And suddenly She touched me in such a way as to convince me of Her beingness. And Her touch was not sweetness and light, no, but the darkness of sleep and the night, the power of She Who Changes.
Her darkness was not the darkness of evil or the macabre. I was not tempted to trade my chalice for a skull goblet or festoon myself with black lipstick. But She was about death, about understanding its place in life, about accepting its challenge, about the balance which is the natural order of things.
And although the truths She taught me began to heal me from the wounds I had suffered, Her presence began to be a bit more than I could bear. To consider death at every turn, to marvel at its purpose, to wonder at its finality, to embrace its inevitability; these were not easy things.
And so I conceived of a plan: I volunteered to perform a public ritual [for New York New Moon, an open circle--ish]. She Herself had taught it to me: a re-creation of Her crossroads, a place to meet Her, to appease Her, to open to Her healing touch, to offer and to learn.
I would organize this ritual, I would introduce Her to anyone who came, and then I would say goodbye to Her, ridding myself of what was beginning to feel like a burden.
It was the first public ritual I ever led, and it was a great success. Many people came, and to the surprise of those of us who organized it, it raised tremendous power; power which I felt but had no idea what to do with. When it was over many people came up to me to say how grateful they were.
The following weekend I went to a Pagan gathering [the Earthspirit Community's Twilight Covening--ish]. Also attending were many of the people who had organized and attended the ritual. But there was problem, my friends said. One woman had had a traumatic experience in the ritual. An old health problem had resurfaced, and she felt that the poorly grounded energy of the ritual was responsible. I apologized for my inexperience. But no, it's not just that, I was told. This woman thinks that she has been cursed by Her, the Goddess invoked at the crossroads in the circle. Would I, they wanted to know. please ask Her to remove the whammy that this woman had received.
And so I went alone to cast a circle, to recreate the crossroads, to call Her down, to perform the ritual I thought I was free of.
Exhausted from the gathering, and in choking clouds of incense I called Her. She came. And She spoke to me. She told me that it was an illusion to think I could be free of Her. I must embrace Her, and only then would I find healing and what I sought. Each dark of the moon, she made me swore, I would call her. I would honor Her. I would recreate Her crossroads, burn Her a black candle, sing Her healing song. She would be my friend and companion. She would be the night that I carried with me into the day.
No I was not free to refuse. I made the promise, the vow. And I waited for morning.
Part 2: Crows
I called it, in my journal, crow-woman, but it never felt comfortable around my neck. And maybe that was the point.
I bought it because I had been working, I thought, with Her crows. It had yellow and red and black beads, and three black crow feathers dangling from it. And a dozen withered black crows' feet spaced between the beads: grim amputated curling claws. It was a necklace. It had been made out west, by an Indian, I was told. It was much too intense a thing to be called jewelry.
I waited for it to come alive. I carried it to our dark moon rituals, where we called Her to come to us. I waited for its whisper. The scratch of its talons on my flesh when I put it around my neck made my skin crawl, but it remained silent.
When I went to the mountains of North Carolina one autumn, the whisper came. It said: take me along. And so I packed crow-woman with my ritual essentials and flew off -- no black bird but silver steel -- to a gay spiritual retreat.
Let me say here only that the retreat [Gay Spirit Visions --ish] was life-changing: an exploration of gay spiritual consciousness and a lesson in personal self-worth and affirmation.
At the retreat I met a man, whose full name I now struggle to call to my mind. He was called Raven. He had pale pale skin and jet black hair. He was an Indian, he said. He was not beautiful to me, but he was strangely magnetic and compelling; hos face bore traces of many burdens. He was one of the organizers of the retreat, and he had much cause over the weekend to speak to the hundred or so of us gathered there.
One of the climaxes of the retreat was a dance around the fire to the beat of drums. The beat was not wild and free, but carefully measured. And I could hear it from the distance as I walked the path from my cabin toward the central hall, the high mountain night wrapped dark around.
And in a spot of light -- my memory does not tell me if it was moonlight or starlight or flashlight -- I heard a whisper. It said: "give it to him."
When I hear a whisper in that part of my mind I usually try to dissuade it. If the whisper responds "OK, do what you want," I know it to be one of those little voices called self-doubt that are best ignored.
But the whisper said, "Yes, I'm sure. You know who I am and I say give it to him." By this time I knew what He was talking about, who he was talking about, and Who He was whispering to me in the mountain night.
So I turned around and went back to my cabin, and pulled the necklace from its black cloth wrapping. And I returned along the path to the fire. There gay men in various stages of trance and undress writhed in the orange light of a crackling fire.
I went up to Raven and said that I needed to talk to him. The whoops of the dancers and the pounding of the drums made us strain to hear.
I said, "I don't understand this. But I have to give you something," and I held up the necklace, its wrinkled claws dark and shiny in the firelight. "I have this god who follows me around. I don't know why, really, but I think he's Eleggua, an African deity. Anyway, he said that I have to give this to you. It's not old or anything. But it is sacred, and I have never learned to use it."
He looked at me oddly, as anyone in that situation would. But he took the necklace. He told me that he had heard of the god I was talking about. He said his teacher was a Heyoka, the Lakota word for trickster. He said to me, "You know this is a very heavy thing to give to me."
I could only nod and shrug.
He thanked me gravely, and returned to the fire. I returned after a while to my cabin. I felt like something had happened that I didn't quite understand. Something karmic had passed, it was clear, but mostly I felt that I had done a justice to crow-woman, freeing a sacred object whose power needed to be undestood from an unfortunate fate as a trinket bought and sold for money.
In the remaining day of the retreat Raven and I did not talk, in fact, I would say he avoided me. My own burdens seemed oddly lightened, though, and I experienced in the gathering's final ritual an important revelation (the reporting of which I'll leave to another time} which has strengthened me since.
But I learned, finally, the message that Her crows bring.
More than a year passed. I was unable to return for the retreat's annual gathering. Already it was Spring and I received a mailing from the retreat's organizers about a memorial gathering. A memorial for Raven, who had died of AIDS in the winter passed.
The crows are black, and their voices are loud and shrill. They fly in flocks, dark and shiny. Wrinkled and curved talons curl around branches, around bone. Their beaks are sharp, singing songs that cannot be sung. The crows fly carrying Her message. Their burden is unbearable, yet it must be borne.
Pay attention to the crows.
Part 3: Hekate, She Oh Mother, She
Her season is High Autumn. Amidst the falling leave, the shortening days and the chilling air, we speak of the veil between the worlds growing thin. At this time the dead walk the earth as our memories are stirred. At this time She calls to Her children to embrace Her, to walk with Her for a season.
My coven [called the Coven of the Middle Pillar--ish] was planning our ritual for Halloween, for Samhain, for Her holiday, and it was this we leanred when we needed Her presence in a more real, more dramatic way. We realized that one of us would have to agree to take Her on for Her season: that is, to open ourselves to Her, to invite Her to stay with us, speak through us, to change us. And so the crows cawed.
The second year it was my turn to embrace Her, and like my predecessor, when the time came I put on the snake rings that were Her symbol.
In one week I called to Her in three rituals; in each one invoking Her presence in me for the duration of the ritual and for the season. Despite my vow of three years before, I was no prepared for the intensity of the experience. Despite the fact that my coven had formed around our mutual devotion to Her, I was not prepared for the vividness of living with Her in that way. There were many surprises.
What happened was that everything in my life was put on the crossroads. As though a jeweller examining facets through a glass, I was given cause to examine each and every facet of my life. Some I left at the crossroads. Some I gathered up. A flaw here or there led me in search of correction. A particular flicker led me to prideful satisfaction. Fortunately the deaths in my life proved only metaphorical this time, though many of them were painful, as change is wont to be, necessary thing that it is.
And so the winter passed into spring, and the changes began to sprout roots, to depeen.
And then in a whirling moment, the unexpected. It was another ritual. Though I carried Her in my breast, it was not She whose name we called. But I remember being in a trance, moving, maybe singing; dancing among my covenmates also moving, making noise, all of us directed to that inner place where we find our link to Her.
And a voice began to whisper in my head: "Now is the time," it said. "The time has come for changes. This is the crossroads, now, and you must choose." And I found myself ripping snake rings off my fingers. And snapping pentacle chains off my nexk. And She released me.
She, Hekate. Oh Mother, She.
She let me go. She flung me out of her dark embrace, changed, healed. And I realized a time in my life had ended, a season of trial and change passed. I went for a kind if psychic reading, and the man who listened to the whipser of spirits told me to wear more white clothing. He saw me leaving a veiled black figure behind. My path now feels different than before, and while this year I will not don Her black veils and robes, nor light Her black candles, I can never forget that I owe who I have become to Her dark whispers.
On the surface of things Hekate's message is very simple: Without death there is no life. That is, life feeds on life; in order for new life to come into the world, old life must end, and pass its spark of life-force on. The truth of this is revealed in as simple an act as eating, when one being (animal or vegetable) consumes the lifeforce of another -- vegetable or animal -- in order to sustain its own life force. But what this reveals about us, people, queer people, you, me, is the divine part: We're part of a sacred dance of the stars: the life force that fires suns is the same that grows cucumbers and animates our bodies. In this knowledge is a healing gift. The mud and the crows and my dead friends (and yours) and me and you we're all the same, really, the spiral dance of our atoms showing, in miraculous imagining, Her presence in all things, and bearing, in the richness of its season fruit of grace and balance and patience and inner peace.
But words are only signs. Words and symbols are not the things themselves, nor their true knowing, and these words, while shared, are certainly mine and not yours, and this is why Hekate is mistress of magic, the only real way to understand Her voice. Go to Her Crossroads and dare to listen. And in the tears and trials and wonders, may you find... yourself.