Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Reclaiming Catterntide: a Women's Winter Journey for Celtic Advent


Holding a Cattern Cake with rde berries behind

The last week before traditional 'church' Advent began was a meaningful one indeed. Much of that was bound up marking the ancient festival of Catterntide.

In my last sharing I wrote about making Cattern cakes from a Tudor recipe. It was my third year of doing so and their taste and delicious aroma have become an important part of Celtic Advent here in the hedgehermitage. But what was especially lovely was the number of people, both from the Wild Goose Collective and also from Twitter and Instagram, who posted all manner of delicious looking photos of their own Cattern cakes this year. It truly did feel that something was being reclaimed that might otherwise have been lost, if only a 300+ year old cake recipe. But we were reclaiming much more than that.

Catterntide is another name for the Feast Day of St Catherine of Alexandria, who is said to have lived from 287-305 CE, but is much more likely to be an apocryphal figure, a collection of threads of memory of many women who died for their faith around that time. Nevertheless, she was, and is, an important figure for many; considered one of the 'Fourteen Holy Helpers' ~ a group of saints first written about in 14th Century Rhineland during the bubonic plague epidemic, which came to be known as the Black Death. The Fourteen Holy Helpers were considered to be especially effective when approached in prayer, particularly against certain diseases. In St Catherine's case, her intercession was sought especially against sudden death and diseases of the tongue, the latter because she was considered to be a fine orator, as we shall see. 

St Catherine by Theophilia on Deviant Art

Catherine was an extremely important saint during the late Middle Ages, and is considered by many to have been the most revered of the virgin martyrs. Her medieval cult was established when, in 800 CE, her body was allegedly rediscovered on Mt Sinai and said to be still growing hair and with healing oil flowing from her body. Several pilgrimage narratives detailing this rediscovery added to her legend and shrines and altars holding her relics sprang up all over England and France. Both Canterbury and Westminster claim to hold phials of her oil, brought back by Edward the Confessor, and St Catherine's Hill in Hampshire, which is the site of an Iron Age hill fort is topped by a 12th Century chapel dedicated to her. 

There is another chapel, this time built in the 14th Century on St Catherine's Hill near the village of Artington, Surrey. 

St Catherine's chapel, Surrey Live

This chapel is very close to the River Wey and I once sought it out during my days living on a boat. We were unable to find the way and were guided there by the most beautiful grey cat, but that is perhaps a story for another day. It feels worth mentioning though that St Catherine's Hill forms part of the landscape feature known as the Hog's Back, which has sites dedicated to both St Catherine and St Martha. I once went to a talk at the, much missed, London Earth Mysteries Circle where the speaker told us that she believed the Hog's Back to be an example of the body of the Sacred Feminine lying in the landscape. At that talk a fellow attendee shared that he considered St Catherine, who name means 'light' or 'pure', to be a manifestation of Brighid. Ean Begg, in his essential work, 'The Cult of the Black Virgin', tells us that St Martha sites mark the presence of pre-existing snake cults, with Martha having 'tamed the dragon'. Snakes are also sacred to Brighid, as folklore tells us that adders rise from hibernation on her Feast Day at Candlemas on 2nd February. Although this might not be directly relevant to our Advent journey I love the ways that the wild spirit weaves connections to make new and endlessly beautiful patterns. 

But back to St Catherine and Catterntide. St Catherine attracted a large female following, who were less likely to make pilgrimage and more often held her up as an exemplar of ideal female behaviour; I hope that her fierce and intelligent debating skills were included in that! From the 14th Century her mystic marriage to Christ began to appear in hagiographies and in art, and the 15th Century Joan of Arc named her as one of the saints who appeared to and counselled her. That St Catherine is so deeply woven into female experience we shall see when we come to Catterntide but, first, we might hear about her life, according to the legends that have attached to her.

St Catherine, public domain, Wiki Art

Catherine was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 287 CE as the daughter of Constus, the governor there during the reign of emperor Maximian. A studious child from a young age, a vision of Mary and Jesus caused her to convert to Christianity when still a teenager. When persecutions of Christians began under Maxentius, Catherine rebuked him for his cruelty using the example of Christ to persuade him to change his ways. Fifty of the emperor's most accomplished philosophers and orators were summoned to speak for him but could not best her in debate. Many converted to Christianity as a result and were executed immediately. 

Catherine was cruelly beaten and imprisoned for twelve days. Such was the pity of those witnessing her treatment that they wept at the sight of her, but when the prison door was opened a bright light and beautiful perfume emanated from within and Catherine emerged looking more radiant than ever. It was said that during her incarceration angels brought her healing salve and that she was fed daily by a dove from Heaven, together with being visited by Christ. 

As torture had not broken her, Maxentius proposed marriage, which she refused declaring Christ as her spouse. Furious, the emperor condemned her to death on the breaking wheel, subsequently referred to as a 'Catherine Wheel', but at her touch the wheel fell apart. Her beheading was ordered and when carried out it was said that a milk-like substance flowed from her neck. 

Catherine wheel, Pinterest

Catherine's cult remained strong until at least the 18th Century, and she is still the subject of much devotion amongst Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. It may be that as we continue to negotiate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic we will turn to her again as one of our holy helpers. That brings us to the celebration of her Feast Day, known in the British Isles as Catterntide.

St Catherine's Feast Day on 25th November is celebrated in many cultures in many different ways, which seems perfectly understandable when we consider that she is the patron saint of unmarried girls, craftspeople who work with a wheel ~ spinners, potters etc ~ archivists, dying people, educators, jurists, knife sharpeners, lawyers, librarians, mechanics, theologians, hat makers, nurses, preachers, haberdashers, philosophers, scribes, students, spinsters, tanners, and wheelwrights, among many others! But all the threads that move through her feast day meet in the life experiences of women and the dignity of women's work, as we shall see.

On St Catherine's Day in France it is the custom for young women to pray for a husband, and to honour 'Catharinettes'; those who have reached the age of 25 unmarried. 

Catherinettes, Marie Clare

The women send postcards to one another and wear ostentatious hats, coloured green for faith and yellow for wisdom. They process to St Catherine's statue and ask for her to intercede for them lest the become spinsters and 'don St Catherine's bonnet'.

St Catherine's bonnets, PO Life

The focus on hats and bonnets has led St Catherine's Day to become a day when milliners hold a parade to show off their wares. A similar parade takes place in New Orleans the weekend before Thanksgiving.

In contrast, in the British Isles St Catherine and her Feast Day is almost entirely bound up with lace makers, who took Catterntide as an annual holiday and would save up a little money during the year to provide tea and cakes on the day, hence Cattern cakes. 

That St Catherine and lacemaking have become connected may be something of a confusion, as the connection may instead be with Catherine of Aragon, much loved Queen of England from 1509 to 1533. A fine needlewoman, she was credited with teaching lacemaking to the women of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Northamptonshire, and is said to have burned all of her lace in order to give more work to lace makers.

Lace making, Wiki Commons

In Medieval times Catterntide marked the beginning of Advent, although this also sometimes began at Martinmas on 11th November. I love that Martinmas celebrates light in the form of lantern parades, stresses the importance of sharing with the poor during the winter through the story of St Martin giving half of his cloak to a beggar, and, as we enter the season of 'Peace on Earth, commemorates a soldier who refused to fight. And then we come to Catterntide, so deeply embedded instead in women's work and celebrating the production of white-as-snow lace. Even though not overtly acknowledged these two saints provide us with a mindful gateway into the winter and to the season of Advent and Christmas, just as Plough Monday and Distaff Day, close to Epiphany and Twelfth Night in early January lead us out, again rooted in the concerns of men and women respectively.

Often these are said to be secular festivals, as are the Eastern European festivals below, which survived Communism exactly because they were considered neither spiritual nor political, but this is only so in a world that divides spirit from matter. For me these festivals join both, providing us with a thread to follow through the longing and joy of Advent and Christmas which is of the world, not set apart from it. This is the message of Christmas; that Spirit became, and endlessly becomes, matter and joins us in the mess and mayhem of our lives. What could be more spiritual, or political? 

And so we come to the Estonian festivals of Madripäev and Kadripäev, which take place on St Martin's and St Catherine's Feast Days respectively, not only reminding us again how intimately these two saints are intertwined, not only rooted in good work, but also marking the changing season, for here are the men's and women's festivals of winter. Kadripäev in particular is one of the most important days in the rural folk calendar and is still widely celebrated. 

The 'Visit Estonia' website describes these festivals as 'autumn spiritual harvest holidays' and tells us that on both days, "children traditionally visited houses around the villages singing, telling riddles, and collecting sweets."

Kadripäev from lastega.ee

On Madri-eve, 10th November, the children choose a madiisa or 'father' to lead them in the festivities, and similarly on Kadri-eve a kadriema or 'mother' is chosen. The Madri-father wears dark clothes and leads a procession filled with noise; the banging of pots and pans and playing of musical instruments. Many of the participants also wear animal masks and their arrival at a house is said to bring harvest luck.

Animal mask at Madripäev

The day's revelleries end with a party where a goose is served. 

In contrast, the Kadri-mother wears white, as do all the women, as a symbol of the snows of winter, and the traditional porridge, kama, peas, and beans are eaten, together with homemade beer. 

Kadripäev

Kadripäev's particular quality comes from its association with the kadrisants or 'kadri beggars', although both days involve dressing up, often on St Catherine's Day with men dressing as women, and going from door to door receiving treats in return for seasonal songs and blessings. On Madripäev these songs relate to the harvest, but on Kadripäev they refer to good luck with herds and flocks, especially sheep, through the winter, Kadri being the guardian spirit of the herds. And caring for them was primarily a concern of the women.

Kadripäev, postimees.

In order to protect the sheep, shearing was suspended between Martinmas and Catterntide, and no spinning or weaving could take take place on St Catherine's Day, often extending to knitting and sewing, echoing the lacemakers' holiday in the British Isles. 

Kadripäev

That all of these festivals, although manifesting in a variety of ways, are grounded in the seasonal change in work, and the dignity of that work, is clear but they are also rooted in the 'World Turned Upside Down', a reminder that, although this work must be done, we are not slaves and should not be treated as such, that the necessary tasks of society should be completed by common agreement, not through domination and exploitation. 

Which brings me briefly to the Liberty of St Katharine in London. In 1148, Queen Matilda purchased a piece of land close to the Tower of London and established a charitable hospice there. Unusually for that time the sisters and brothers who cared for the sick were considered equals. During the Reformation the site survived by being under the protection of the Queen and, in 1442, it became a 'Liberty', which meant that it was no longer subject to the laws of the City. 

Liberty of St Katharine, map

The Liberty of St Katharine grew to be a maze of narrow streets and lanes with up to 1,000 houses, cottages, and tenements. It attracted the outsiders of society; prostitutes, beggars, and many people who had come to England from other countries. Although poor and overcrowded, it is striking that the mortality rate in the Liberty during the Great Plague was half that of the surrounding areas. We might contrast this with the ways in which poorer areas now are disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus, their work being subject to bosses, rather than to themselves.

The Liberty of St Katharine was demolished for redevelopment following a much contested 1825 Act of Parliament. 1250 homes were destroyed and many made homeless without compensation. At the time many considered this to be desecration of a sacred site. 

Although this is to be mourned, we might still celebrate the Liberty as an inspiring example of self-organisation, even with the most meagre of resources. This is a thread that runs through all connections with St Catherine, who was, like so many workers, threatened with being 'broken on the wheel' and who claimed her own dignity, despite countless attempts to dominate her.

As an aside the wonderful Foundation of St Katharine continues the work of bringing quietly subversive spirit to East London. I have visited there on retreat on several occasions and it is an oasis of green and calm in a sea of concrete. You can find out about them here.

And so, this year I made sure to celebrate Catterntide wildly and well. I ate Cattern cakes for breakfast, went on an edge-of-winter wander and made offerings of sweet-spiced cake in a fairy ring of mushrooms.

Offerings of Cattern cake in a fairy ring

And I was blessed to find in my path a fallen leaf that looked just like goose foot, a special enchantment as it spoke to me of the other thread I follow through Advent, that of feast days connected to wild geese and swans (of which more soon).

Goose foot fallen leaf

In the evening, the sisters of the Wild Goose Collective gathered in the Little Church of Love of the World (on Zoom of course!) to celebrate Catterntide and to step through the gateway of winter. We learned about St Catherine and her feast day around the world, we prayed, shared experiences, ate Cattern cakes, and reclaimed Catherine's Wheel as a symbol of strength. May it be so for us all. And it felt new, old, wild, and wonderful. I am already looking forward to next year.

Thank you, St Catherine for this gentle reminder that nothing is ever truly broken, and that what rises from the land, from the seasons, and from Spirit, continues to turn the world upside down.

A yellow rose

References: see highlighted text.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Stirring up Cattern Cakes & Community ~ for Celtic Advent.

The Sunday before ‘Church Advent’ begins is always Stir-Up Sunday, and this year that fell on 22nd November. I wrote all about Stir-Up Sunday last year and you can read that post here if you would like to. 

Stir-up Sunday, which has become associated with the making of Christmas puddings and cakes, in fact takes its name from the opening words of the collect of the day in the 1594 edition of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’; ‘collect’ being the name for a short prayer that gathers up the theme for a particular day in the Christian liturgy; 

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 

Medievalist Eleanor Parker, who writes as ‘A Clerk of Oxford’, tells us that “Several Advent collects begin with the Latin verb 'excita', which means 'rouse, excite, stimulate'. The translation 'stir up' has a nice energy about it, but a medieval English prayer offers the translation 'Egg' (as in 'egg on'), which also has a pleasing culinary flavour…” 

Indeed, a translation of an Advent collect from Worcester Cathedral begins, “Egg our hearts, Lord of Might”, which brings us beautifully to another meaning of ‘Stir-Up Sunday.” 

Because the ‘stir-up’ prayer came with the specification that it "shall always be used upon the Sunday next before Advent”, and, as most Christmas pudding recipes require the pudding to be kept for several weeks to mature before eating, it acted as a fine reminder that the time had come for pudding making; which certainly brings a different meaning to ‘bringing forth the fruit of good works’! 

And there were other interpretations of the day too. Victorian schoolboys, who were excited by the thought of the imminent Christmas holidays, took the day as an invitation to ‘stir it up’ by pinching and poking one another. We are told that ‘Crib Crust Monday’ and ‘Tug Button Tuesday’ offered similar opportunities to the rosy-cheeked schoolboy, with ‘Pay-off Wednesday’ being the day to repay small grudges in playful fashion! 

The Sunday before Advent is now more usually celebrated as ‘The Feast of Christ the King’, which was first celebrated in 1925, and so I thought that I would share this poem by Malcolm Guite, which warns us against the consumerism so deeply woven into the modern lead-up to Christmas; 

Christ the King 

Matthew 25: 31-46 

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows 

Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty, 

Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows, 

Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’. 

He stands in line to sign in as a stranger 

And seek a welcome from the world he made, 

We see him only as a threat, a danger, 

He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead. 

And if he should fall sick then we take care 

That he does not infect our private health, 

We lock him in the prisons of our fear 

Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth. 

But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing 

The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

(Malcolm Guite) 

As an antidote to that consumerism Stir-Up Sunday invites us to gather with our families around the kitchen table and stir wishes into sweet puddings and cakes. That many of us are unable to do that this year even if we should want to is difficult indeed. 

Last year, I ended my blog on Stir-Up Sunday with a promise to invite my neighbours to the hedgehermitage kitchen this year to stir our pudding mix. But, of course, that too has not been possible with Covid-19 so present in our every day. Imagine then my delight when I visited the gathering place of the Little Church of Love of the World community (of which more on another day), the Wild Goose Collective, on the evening of Stir-Up Sunday to find an array of sharings informing me that many of our number had taken the opportunity to bake Cattern cakes, the traditional food of Catterntide, which falls on 25th November. As I had been doing the same, and as Catterntide is almost with us. I thought that I would share my recipe for Cattern cakes, which is based on an almost unchanged Tudor recipe and comes from the legendary ‘Cattern Cakes and Lace: Calendar of Feasts' by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer. 

This is my third year of making them and they are always delicious. You can read about last year’s Cattern cake-making adventure here

As last year, I recommend the use of an ancestral 1970s apron and gorgeously garish carboot sale rolling pin, but if you don’t have those you can proceed with what you have. Cattern cake recipes are very forgiving.

Here's the recipe. 

Ingredients: 

9oz self-raising flour (sieved) 

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon ~ I use 2 tsp and add some more later on, but I do have a great love of cinnamon. I advise bold experimentation. 

2oz currants 

2oz ground almonds 

2 tsp caraway seeds ~ or, as with the cinnamon, add a bit more. 

6oz caster sugar 

4oz melted butter 

1 medium egg, beaten 

Extra sugar & cinnamon for sprinkling

The recipe can be easily adapted for different dietary requirements. For example, Jan Blencowe of the Wild Goose Collective swapped the self-raising flour for Paleo flour with a heaped tsp of baking powder, substituted flaked almonds for the ground almonds, and used powdered stevia rather than caster sugar.

Method: 

Sieve the flour into a bowl and mix in all the other dried ingredients. 

Add the melted butter & beaten egg and mix to form a soft dough. I also added a tiny bit of warm water. 

Don't forget to lick the spoon!

Roll the dough out on a floured surface until you have a rectangle, approx 10 x 12 inches. 

Brush the rolled out dough with water and then sprinkle with cinnamon (lots!) and sugar. 

Gently roll, as you might for a swiss roll. It doesn't need to be too tight. 

Cut into approx 2cm wide slices and pop on a baking tray, leaving space in between to allow them to spread a little. Bake in an oven preheated to 200°c/Gas Mark 6 for about 10 minutes, or until golden and crispy on the top. Mine took about 25 minutes! Bask in the loveliness as your house fills with the smell of spices and good things. 

Remove your cakes from the oven & pop on a wire rack to cool. You can sprinkle on some more caraway seeds at this point, and even more sugar & cinnamon if liked. 

Once cool, they can be stored in an airtight container for up to 7 days but I can almost guarantee that they won’t last that long. Although I made a large batch of Cattern cakes on Stir-Up Sunday I have already had to make more so that I have some for Cattern Day on Wednesday! 

Traditionally, these cakes would be enjoyed with a 'hot pot' mixture of rum, beer, and eggs, but, so far at least, we have stuck to tea here in the hedgehermitage. Absolutely lovely too. 

Do let me know if you decide to make them.

As for stirring wishes into the mix, this Stir-Up Sunday I chose wishes for creativity,  community, love, and fierce resistance to the dying of the Light. In the year ahead I will do all I can to make sure that my wishes come true.



Saturday, 21 November 2020

Good Company for the Journey; a resource list ~ for Celtic Advent.


One of the possible challenges of following Celtic Advent is that, although we are riding on an ancient tide, we may not feel the sense of shared experience that waiting for the beginning of ‘Church Advent’ with its four traditional Sundays would bring. I like to celebrate both but I very much value the two weeks of sinking into the stillness of the winter dark before the first candle is lit on the Advent Wreath, and I love having the freedom to create my own traditions during this time. It matters so much that we learn to trust ourselves and our own intuition outside the more defined structure of institutional religion. We are waiting for a wilder God, and so we too are invited to find our little fragment of wild.  

Nevertheless, it is lovely indeed to have resources to go to on days when we might feel disconnected or uninspired, or when we just feel like settling down with a cup of tea and good company. And I am endlessly curious about the ways in which others weave their own journeys with the sacred. Because of that I have gathered together some resources, both in print and online, that we might choose to explore. 

The first book is ‘Celtic Advent: 40 Days of Devotions to Christmas’ by David Cole. A former full-time church minister, David Cole is an international teacher and retreat leader, as well as the Deputy Guardian for the Community of Aidan and Hilda. He writes from the perspective of Celtic Christianity and this book explores the ‘three comings of Christ’, which are believed to have been traditional reflections within the Celtic church in the winter season. These are the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Christ into ourselves in every moment, and the ‘second coming’ as described by the Book of Revelation. 

Each day the book offers us a short reflection on a weekly theme, a gentle action, such as a meditation, for example, following the flow of knotwork and swirls on a page from 'The Book of Kells', or questions to ask ourselves, that we might take to deepen our Advent journey. We are also provided with a Bible reading and a short prayer. Many of the days draw their inspiration from the lives of the Celtic saints, who are an endless source of encouragement and delight. 

Another book providing daily readings, although not specifically for Advent, is ‘The Celtic Spirit: Daily Meditations for the Turning Year’ by the ever-wonderful Caitlin Matthews; a source of delight throughout the year. Remember, books aren’t just for Advent! 

This is a less explicitly Christian book, or not Christian at all, and so would suit those of us who don’t follow that path or like to broaden our spiritual understanding. 

We’re told that “using poetry, myths, reflections, rituals, and visualisations, [The Celtic Spirit] leads us on a year-long pilgrimage that will help connect the cycles of your soul to the circle of the seasons...Brimming with the legends and lore of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, The Celtic Spirit is a brilliant introduction to the sacred wisdom of the Celtic path ~ and a potent resource for daily spiritual renewal.” 

Ruth Burgess of the Iona Community has written books covering all the seasons and festivals in the Christian Year. Her ‘Candles and Conifers: Resources for All Saints’ and Advent’ is brimming with good things. 

We’re told that, “'Candles and Conifers' is a collection of seasonal resources ~ prayers, liturgies, poems, reflections, sermons, meditations, stories, and responses, written by Iona Community members, associates, friends and others”. It offers resources, both for groups and individuals, from All Saints’ Day to Christmas Eve and includes saints’ days, Remembrance Day, World AIDS Day, and Advent. There is even a cats’ Advent Calendar! 

In towns and villages 

In tower blocks and terraces 

Christ is waiting to be born 

In palaces and shanty-towns 

In high streets and back-streets 

Christ is waiting to be born 

In the vastness of the universe 

In the intimacy of our hearts 

Christ is waiting to be born 

Another offering from the Iona Community is ‘Doing December Differently: an Alternative Christmas Handbook’ by one of my favourite authors, Nicola Slee, together with Rosie Miles. 

The book “explores how people of faith and goodwill might mark the midwinter season and the Christmas festival with integrity and simplicity. How can we include others and celebrate difference without putting us all under intolerable strain, or perpetuating false and oppressive myths of the idea family life? 

Drawing on ancient roots but also minting fresh language, fresh gestures, fresh meanings, what rites, rituals and ceremonies might we use that are meaningful to us today to help us mark out the days and nights of this midwinter season?” 

There are chapters on family Christmases, alternative community Christmases, solitary Christmases, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Christmases, and non-Christian Christmases, amongst many others. We are provided with historical, liturgical, theological, and sociological perspectives, as well as suggestions for giftgiving and sitting with the midwinter darkness. 

There are also suggestions for Advent, such as holding an Advent Tea and some ideas for journeying through Advent with children. I particularly love Nicola Slee’s ‘alternative Advent Calendar’, which includes such sips of honeyed wisdom for our focus each day as, ‘Darkness. Tiredness. Tears’. ‘welcome laughter where it mingles with all things troubled and trembling’, ‘cynic in you, become child again’, ‘teach yourself starry-eyed wonder’, ‘rip up the Round Robin’, and ‘choose justice in place of sadness.’ Amen to all of that! 

Next, we have two poetry books; ‘Circle of Grace: a Book of Blessings for the Seasons’ by Jan Richardson and ‘A Star-filled Grace: Worship and prayer resources for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany’ by Rachel Mann. 

Jan Richardson’s book is at times almost unbearably beautiful and a great source of comfort and wisdom on the darkest of days. She tells us that, “within the struggle, joy, pain, and delight that attend our life, there is an invisible circle of grace that enfolds and encompasses us in every moment. Blessings help us to perceive this circle of grace, to find our place of belonging within it, and to receive the strength the circle holds for us.” ‘Circle of Grace’ begins with ‘Where the Light Begins: Blessings for Christmas and Advent’ and is a quiet and gentle ally in these long nights of winter; 

“...this is what 

I can ask for you. 

That in the darkness 

there be a blessing. 

That in the shadows 

there be a welcome. 

That in the night 

you be encompassed by 

the Love that knows 

your name."

Anglican priest, broadcaster, and writer, Rachel Mann, “questions the cosy and sentimental view of the festive season and takes seriously the idea that God in Christ is born as a vulnerable outsider who transforms the world in radical ways.” 

As well as poems and light and dark, and prayers, liturgies, meditations, plays, and reflections, the book includes a section on ‘voices of Advent & Nativity’ where we can hear the thoughts of Mary, Elisabeth, Joseph, a Roman soldier, a shepherd, an angel, and Herod, amongst many others. 

Saw this is the same  is a modern, often challenging, take on the Christmas story and so a valuable resource in shaking us out of our well worn and familiar furrows; 

Angel (I) 

Luke 1:26-38 

She was so young. 

Too young. 

But it’s not my job to have opinions. It’s my job to deliver news. 

I thought she would run when I walked into her home. It would have been the reasonable thing to do. 

I’ve got used to odd reactions to my presence. But she was so cool. So composed that at first I thought she was stupid. She looked at me without blinking. 

But I saw it was her courage. Men four times her age rarely have her self-possession. She was nobody’s fool…” 

Rachel Mann’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter: Through Advent and Christmas with Christina Rossetti’ would also be a thoughtful addition to an Advent bookshelf. 

My final printed resource is ‘Making Winter: a Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months’ by Emma Mitchell. 

This is a beautiful book; certainly not a specifically Advent-related offering but filled with ideas for engaging with the pulse of winter, scattered with lovely photographs taken at Emma’s cottage in the Fens. This gathering of nature-inspired crafts describes 24 projects, including silver jewellery making, paper-crafting, crocheted mittens, foraged infusions, scrumptious recipes, and nature diaries. Just lovely. 

Other bookish recommendations are: 

Walter Brueggemann, ‘Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent’ and ‘Names for the Messiah: an Advent Study’. 

Richard Rohr, ‘Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent’. 

Jane Williams, 'The Art of Advent: a Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany’, which is absolutely lovely!

And a new recommendation given by my friend Jan, ‘All Creation Waits: the Advent Mystery of New Beginnings’ by Gayle Boss with illustrations by David G. Klein, which includes portraits of twenty-four creatures, such as the black bear, the wild turkey, the little brown bat, the meadow vole, the red fox, and the honeybee, and describes the ways in which their survive the winter knowing that, “the dark is not an end, but a door.” 

Although the book is a little difficult to get here in the UK it is available on Kindle or as an audible book and you can hear a little here https://vimeo.com/181256237.

I am very much looking forward to curling up with. Thank you, Jan!

I have also gathered together a list of online resources that might be of interest: 

The first is the yearly Celtic Advent Calendar from Contemplative Cottage, which can be found at https://contemplativecottage.com/celtic-advent-calendar/, and which this year allows for Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions. 

You can learn more about it here https://contemplativecottage.com/2020/11/15/observing-celtic-advent-and-liturgical-time/ 

Christine Sine of ‘GodSpaceLight’ has been celebrating and writing about Celtic Advent for many years. You can read her reflections here https://godspacelight.com/2018/11/14/welcome-to-celtic-advent-set-your-heart-in-the-right-direction/ and she has also created a rather wonderful Spotify playlist for the Advent season here https://open.spotify.com/playlist/177C7QIoOAwHkY0bAjU87S?si=M92QFRasTTK-Wz1tS48IbA 

Further sharings at GodSpaceLight which might be of interest can be found at https://godspacelight.com/2020/11/16/meditation-monday-the-light-is-coming/, and https://godspacelight.com/2020/11/14/taize-style-contemplative-service-for-november-15-2020/

Christine can also be found on Twitter @ChristineSine where she shares posts on the #CelticAdvent hashtag. 

John Birch at Faith & Worship also provides some beautiful Celtic-style prayers and worship resources for the seasons. His Advent offerings can be found at https://www.faithandworship.com/#gsc.tab=0 

24-7 Prayer Scotland are also following Celtic Advent and have shared a blog about it here https://24-7scotland.com/songs-in-the-wasteland-birdsong/.

They have also been sharing the most beautiful Celtic Advent prayers on Twitter via @247PrayerScot; 

We have waited long for You.

Deep has been the darkness... 

We will not fear the shadows that surround us 

if only You will come among us! 

We await the sound of a cry in the night, 

the joy that follows pain, 

the coming of hope.’ 

- from Celtic Daily Prayer, Book Two 

I will end with some wonderful Celtic Advent sharings from Tadhg Jonathan, who has very recently undergone surgery for a brain tumour. I wish him well and hope that anyone reading this blog might send a little prayer of healing his way. 

His writings can be found at https://tadhgtalks.me/2017/11/04/celtic-advent-cosmic-thoughts-at-the-cafe/,https://tadhgtalks.me/2019/11/14/celtic-advent-even-more-cosmic-thoughts-at-the-magic-cafe, and https://tadhgtalks.me/2016/11/16/ephemera-its-time-to-celebrate-the-first-day-of-the-celtic-advent-season/

There really are so many resources that we could choose to dive into, and of course our challenge then is not to replace the busyness of a manic Christmas season with an equally busy Celtic Advent, as we try to take in far too much information. But it is also helpful to have a gathering place for such things just in case we do need them. I love all of these resources and often get out all my books and open web pages in readiness for Celtic Advent to begin, and then I go for a walk along the hedgerow instead. May our journeys always be led by our own deepening awareness of the beauty held in the darkness. 

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts, 

that the God who breathed this world into being, 

placed stars into the heavens, 

and designed a butterfly’s wing, 

Is the God who entrusted his life 

to the care of ordinary people. 

[He] became vulnerable that we might know 

how strong is the power of Love. 

A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp, 

a mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore. 

(Poem/prayer: John Birch, http://www.faithandworship.com used Under Creative Commons Licence)

Thursday, 19 November 2020

The Lightbringers ~ for Celtic Advent.

Karin Celestine's 'The Lightbringers' book

I want to use my next few Celtic Advent posts to share resources that you might enjoy and which might deepen our journey through the dark months. To begin, I can think of no better resource than 'The Lightbringers', the newest offering from author and maker of wondrous things, Karin Celestine, also known as Celestine and the Hare

If I could choose just one book to take with me through the dark then this would be it. It was published on 12th November, the day after Martinmas and during Diwali, the Festival of Light; quite deliberately embracing the bright hope that both these festivals hold. Each page is a meditation on darkness, carrying the light, and the importance and power of small things, all threaded through with folklore and the sweet winter song of the land. It begins; 

“The Earth breathes. 

In the summer, she breathes out and the world fills with warmth and light. She laughs and dances and the flowers spill out from her cloak. 

Folk feast on the fruits of summer and make flower crowns. They dance and light bonfires, jumping them for courage. 

When the Earth has danced and laughed till she is tired, she settles down to sleep…” 

So unfolds the story of the small creatures who “keep safe the last sparks of light deep underground”, guarding it until the seasons turn again. And of the larger, but not necessarily wiser, human creatures who light candles and Yule logs for courage in the dark, despite fearing that the light will never return. 

Of course, the Small Ones, who live closer to the pulse of things, know better than that; they gather the embers of the almost extinguished light and they begin to walk. These are the Lightbringers. 

And so we are led on the most beautiful and fragile-strong of journeys, filled with vulnerability and fierce hope; much like the one we are on as we travel through the winter, and have also been on since our collective response to Covid-19 began in the spring. I have found that ‘The Lightbringers’ has already become the most wonderful friend and I have returned to it again and again. It is the perfect book to curl up with on a wintry Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea by your side, or on a rainy night with the wind howling and rattling at the windows. It is the cosiest of companions. 

And it isn’t just the beautifully woven words within ‘The Lightbringers’ that cast such a spell. The images are also enchanting. In her guise as Celestine and the Hare, Karin creates charming felt creatures ~ faerie hares, cleaning mice, shrews on swings, puck weasels, and arctic foxes in copper coracles, as well as silver and copper charms cast from nature, and the most beautiful ‘natbagger’s boats’. All the figures in ‘The Lightbringers’ were made by Karin, and all the photographs taken by her. She really is a creative whirlwind! 

Karin's website tells us that she; 

“lives in a small house in Monmouth, Wales. In her garden there is a shed and in that shed is another world. The world of Celestine and the Hare. 

It is a place where kindness, mischief and beauty help people find the magic in the ordinary. 

Karin is an artist and author, who creates needle felted animals of charm and character, including the stars of her own delightful stop-motion animations and her series of children’s books published with Graffeg. 

Her joy in the world of nature is also reflected in her sculptural copper pieces which complement her feltwork. 

Karin runs popular needle felting workshops, inspiring others to find their creative spirit.” 

Each page of the book also includes a small hand drawn illustration linking to the season and story by Tamsin Rosewell and a short piece on winter folklore traditions by Pamela Thom-Rowe at the back. Very lovely.

Karin explained at her recent book launch that she wrote the story of 'The Lightbringers', almost spontaneously, some years ago and shared it on social media. Many people asked for their own copy and she first made it into printed cards before it evolved into a book published by small independent publishers, Graffeg

There are gently held plans for three more books to be published in this series, one for each season, and Karin’s aim in writing them is to bring the deep folklore and festivals of the land back to consciousness; a vital work in healing disconnection in both adults and children. So many of us have come so far from these older rhythms and yet they are there, just under the skin of things. It would only take a simple spell to call them back, and here are the lightbringers to do just that. I have no doubt that they will succeed. 

In her blog, which you can read here, Karin says; 

“I love the British celebrations and folklore, though so many are being lost and forgotten. How many of us now bake a Lammas loaf? Or know not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas? These ancient tales mark the turning of the year and have wisdom still relevant. No matter what else happens, the days grow darker and then the sun returns again. Flowers blossom and harvests are gathered in.” 

It feels to me that part of our journey through Advent moves around a conscious attempt to place our bellies and hearts closer to the earth. Here is an invitation to come back into alignment, and, in a world where we expect everything immediately, slow down, reclaim the sacred nature of waiting, learn patience. ‘The Lightbringers’ can help us to do that in the softest, sweetest, and gentlest of ways. There is no demand, no rule to follow, only the quiet breathing of the earth waiting for us to notice. We sit in vigil. We wait. And, sometimes, we sit down with a cup of tea to read and rest in the peace-weaving of words carrying the promise that the light with return. 

I will leave the last words to Karin, who puts it much better than I ever could; 

“The Lightbringers sprang from I don’t know where in my heart. An ancient wisdom from my ancestors perhaps. A feeling for the dark days of winter, that we need darkness. Light needs darkness to shine. We need rest, recuperation. The wisdom of the earth is one we can learn from. We are in a busy busy keep going fast track, don’t stop rush noise of a world. Doing nothing is frowned upon but really we all need rest, time to pause, like the seeds in the earth, darkness and rest before we dance again. Central heating and lighting mean we keep going all year round but our bodies often yearn for the hygge of Autumn, cuddled up by the fire.”

And here are Celtic Advent and ‘The Lightbringers’ to remind us to begin, and to stay on the path. 

Karin is a great champion of independent bookshops. If you would like a copy of ‘The Lightbringers’ then do think about ordering it directly from her at https://www.celestineandthehare.com/books or from Kenilworth Books at https://www.kenilworthbooks.co.uk/the-lightbringers/, or of course from your own local bookshop. 

Mari Lwyd drawing from 'The Lightbringers' by Tamsin Rosewell

In tomorrow’s blog I have further resources, both books and online, to support us in our Celtic Advent journey. 

Further reading:

https://www.celestineandthehare.com/ 

https://www.celestineandthehare.com/blog/the-lightbringers

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

A Wilder Advent ~ Celtic Advent, Day 1

 

Advent candles in snow

We traditionally think of Advent; the preparation period for Christmas, as beginning either on 1st December when we open the first door of our Advent calendar or, if we are churchly minded, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which this year will be on 29th November; also the beginning of the church year. But there is an older, and perhaps wilder, Advent which was marked from at least the 5th Century when Saint Perpetuus, then Bishop of Tours, directed his monks to fast three times a week from Martinmas, St Martin’s Feast Day on 11th November until Christmas Day. 

Martinmas is the most wonderful festival, marked by lantern-lit processions and remembering 4th Century St Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who laid down his sword to follow the Prince of Peace and tore his cloak in half one bitterly cold night to share it with a poor man. This is particularly significant as a Roman soldier’s cloak, the hooded paenula or unhooded sagum, doubled as the soldier’s bedroll, being both warm and waterproof. That St Martin shared his cloak with another lessened his own chances of survival in a harsh climate but also had a deeper meaning. The sagum was worn in deliberate contrast to the toga, which was considered to be a garment only of peace time. Even those in the cities who were uninvolved in fighting would wear the sagum in times of war and so it was a symbolic act indeed to tear it in half. That St Martin’s Feast Day now falls on Remembrance Day here in the British Isles and throughout the colonised Commonwealth seems the most powerful of synchronicities, especially when we are entering a time which we hope will call in Peace on Earth. 

Before our time was colonised in the name of Capitalism and productivity so many more of our days were given over to the sacred and so it was with Advent and Christmastide, which once continued until Candlemas on 2nd February. There is a beautiful rhythm in this as it means that both Advent and the Christmas season last for forty days, mirroring the forty days of Lent and Eastertide. Indeed, Advent was once known as ‘St Martin’s Lent’. It also means that, once, Christmas and all that goes with it lasted for almost three months! We must reflect of course on the ways in which the institutional Church has also colonised the time of the Common people, but it does feel that there is much to be reclaimed by once more carving out a conscious space for the holy and hallowed to come in. 

And what better time for sinking into the holy than the middle of November, when the last of the leaves have fallen from the trees, taking the warmth of their autumn colours with them, and we are contemplating our journey through the long days of winter dark? We know that we will be called to rest, that we may be stripped to the bone. Why would we not want to be accompanied by the Spirit that will lead us back into the light when the time comes? 

It’s not known with any credibility when the marking of Advent first began; almost as though it grew up from the mycelial threads of the soil or fell from the stars, but it has called us to seek ways to sit in the in-between of the thin places for many hundreds of years, just as the even older earth-based faiths did before it and continue to do. This makes so much sense as at Advent we are sitting in vigil awaiting the incarnation of Divinity on Earth, an incarnation that will come with the birth of the Son and rebirth of the Sun at Midwinter. Christianity is a faith so deeply woven into the mess and muddle, and magnificence, of matter that of course it is rooted in these deeper tides. 

And so it is that with this older Advent we are seeking a wilder God; one that chooses to be born yearly within the rhythm of the seasons as a vulnerable baby, a child of a displaced refugee family without the safety of a place of belonging. A Divinity needing our care, our protection, and our fierce love. We are all pregnant with peace and suffused with wonder. In these weeks of vigil we too are invited to consider what we wish to bring to birth as we wait for the Star to light the winter dark. With the world as it is we are so desperately in need of hope and the feeling that we can make a difference.

And in 2020 we are journeying too with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused this to be the most uncertain of years. We are all ‘Advent people’, learning how to live well in the in-between places, or doing our best to learn. It is telling that many amongst us have already decorated our homes for Christmas, seeking to create the feelings of ‘comfort and joy’ that the season brings ~ a raft in turbulent seas. That so many have no other access to comfort than decorating for Christmas (in the absence of the yearly escape of a holiday) is telling but we are all nevertheless planting seeds in the fertile darkness of holy ground. 

And so to Old Advent, more usually known as Celtic Advent, which again has several possible start dates, most usually now beginning on the evening of 14th November with 15th November as its first day, but sometimes beginning on the 16th, or on the Sunday closest to Martinmas! This is all rather unsettling but gives us space to choose the date which suits us best and to explore what resonates with us most. There is a wildness and a breaking of boundaries in that alone. I choose to begin my own Advent on the 14th/15th. As I did last year, I hope to share a blog for each day of Advent, and continue into the 12 Days of Christmas (and possibly Candlemas if the world turns in that way). It would be lovely to have your company in the journey. 

The term ‘Advent’ is taken from the Latin, ‘adventus’, for ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. In his poem ‘Little Gidding’, T.S. Eliot writes; 

      “We shall not cease from exploration, 

        And at the end of our exploring 

        Will be to arrive where we started 

        And know the place for the first time.” 

May this winter vigil see us arriving together on new, more beautiful, and ever more holy ground, knowing it as if for the first time. 

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Martin's_Day 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_of_Tours 

https://www.romanobritain.org/8-military/mil_soldiers_cloak_.php 


Monday, 18 May 2020

Holy Thorn & Holy Sacrifice: Remaking Boundaries in the Time of Corona


In recent days I have been hawthorn gathering; a joyous task indeed, but I have
also been thinking about sacrifice; both heartbreaking and holy, & how it is manipulated against us.

On Friday my lady employer, who is struggling to love the 'greedy' magpie who visits her bird feeder, was distressed to find that it had discovered the starling nest in her roof and had been taking chicks.

I absolutely understand that it is distressing to witness such things, & the alarm calls of the starlings will of course cause a response in our wilder, deeper, heart spaces which understand the older language beyond words, but magpies have babies to feed too & they need to teach their own children about food. They are scavengers & their chicks need to learn that meat is good.



Whilst we were talking it occurred to me that magpies have only one brood per year, feeding them for several months even after they've fledged. Starlings in the roof here seem to have two, or even three broods, per year. The magpies only appear to predate them when they have chicks of their own, not later when they are caring for fledglings, & so only the first starling brood is truly vulnerable.

In her book, 'The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, & Sustainability', Lierre Keith writes about the concept of 'kas-limaal', a philosophy held by the Mayan people which translates roughly as 'mutual indebtedness, or insparkedness'. Everything that holds the pulse of Life on this planet is indebted to everything else. Truly, there are no separate entities, only endlessly beautiful and evolving parts of a shiningly wild system of relationships. The starling I know does not want her babies to die so that the magpie's babies can live, but we are all indebted one to the other for our survival and sometimes that means sacrifice.



Sacrifice; the letting go of what we are or have so that others might live, always with the knowledge that in the great wheel of Life-Death-Life we will return again, is one of the fundamental principles on which life is made. To deny this indebtedness, to try to avoid it, which we so frequently attempt to do as individuals and as a nation, is to deny that we are a part of Life. The starling mother may wish that it were otherwise but she plays her role, as we all must do if we are wise.

Again, Lierre Keith writes that "for someone to live, someone else has to die."

"...he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again."

(2 Corinthians 5:15).

She continues that, "We are all made of the same substance, a substance animate and sacred. Because [of that] we are all siblings...The animating substance is more energy than mass, more motion that a thing. It passes through us, temporarily taking the form of a fish or a flower, and then it's transformed into a heron or a hummingbird, and then again into a coyote or an apple. And even though fish and flowers die, Fish and Flowers continue." This is Hildegard's 'viriditas', the 'green fuse that drives the flower', but it also drives us and everything. The grieving starling may one day be the magpie mother, and vice versa, but Starling and Magpie endure through it all.



Founder of community kitchen Three Stone Hearth, Jessica Prentice, has written that, "In ancient Greek there were two different words for 'life'; bios and zoë...zoë -life, life in the biggest sense of enduring life, Life with a capital L, requires the sacrifice of bios-life, the particular lives of living creatures. Zoë takes (kills, consumes, eats, sacrifices, requires) bios."

This concept is at the centre of many of the world's religious traditions; "Death extinguishes a particular life...but Life endures and transcends death," with death, of course, as one of the great engines of transformation.

"For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone."

(Romans 14:7)

These sacrifices which we are all called to make, whether consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, on behalf of Life are sacred. That they are required are the cross we all carry in service to the Tree of Life. We are holy servants of transformation, of Life-Death-Life, of destruction and resurrection, and our suffering is born of grace.



Which is why the attempts of the Right Wing press and our Government to force our youngest children and their teachers back to school, and mostly less well off and working class employees back to work, before even the British Medical Association considers it safe, is an unholy act against Life itself.

This anti-Life, Capitalist, cult will stop at nothing in its greed to feed itself. For them, we and our children are not sacrifices to the pulse of Life, but faceless fuel to power the machine which is strangling it.

They aren't asking for our sacrifice; they don't care about us enough to think about it in that way. The concept is not part of their conscious worldview. And yet, there are so many of us making knowing sacrifices now; keyworkers particularly are risking their lives (and often more so than they might if our Government was more caring), but each one of us who is living under lockdown is making a sacrifice of freedom, of not seeing our families, our grandchildren, or our friends, of holidays and long held dreams abandoned until who knows when. We are temporarily sacrificing life for Life. We have become hermits for the holy, and we have found blessings there as well as grief.

In our own small ways we have found that there is life on the other side of seeming death, and even within it. Our Government would like to wrench us out of this holy space, tear the children from our arms to make our own return to work easier, to cajole us into being 'heroes' in service not to Life but to their god of greed. We must not allow this to happen. Our lives are worth so much more than that, and we have the work of transformation to do.


This week is Rogationtide, an ancient season of the Church year and part of our agricultural heritage, at a time when so many of us are reconnecting, or newly connecting, with the land we live on. Traditionally, Rogationtide was the time for 'beating the bounds', or processing around the parish boundary to share knowledge of, and to ask for protection and blessing for, the land.

And the hawthorn is out; our fairy thorn so often planted at the edges of fields to keep us out of the common land which once belonged to us all, but also retaining a little bit of the wild that might otherwise have been lost, and providing much needed shelter for many.


Rather than coming to hate or resent the May, as well we might, we have instead embraced her, holding her ever closer to our hearts as a symbol of all that is wild and good in the earth and in ourselves, and we are sensibly just a little bit scared of her because we know our boundary markers and edge dwellers to be the challenging, tricksterish things that they are and should always be.

Just as we have insisted on our love for the hawthorn, we can do the same with the restrictions that are placed on us now; seeing them not only as limiting, but as also offering liberation from a way of being that has for many years been unsustainable, both individually and collectively. In service to Life, we can give ourselves the time we need to explore this strange new landscape; grieve with the starling, rejoice with the magpie, offer help and support to those who are struggling, financially or otherwise, leaving none behind. And we can 'beat our bounds', asking for blessing and protection on these boundaries that we know to be born of holy, Life-honouring, sacrifice just as our Government seeks to break them.

Stay strong. We are doing this for love. And we are doing this for Life.