Last fall I had the privilege of returning to the Berkshires for a weekend of community, celebration, ritual, and discovery. An annual event for over 20 years, it was a weekend of working together to support our individual journeys in preparation for the coming months of darkness, a prime time for deep inner spiritual work. I’ve participated in this gathering on four occasions, and each has been a rich experience: some more enjoyable than others, some more effective than others. I’ve had my buttons pushed in good ways and bad. I’ve had realizations about myself and what it means to connect to community. I’ve felt frustrated and deeply grateful, ecstatically connected to all beings of the Earth, and at times, profoundly alone. I’ve complained about and filled with pride at belonging to such a community of diverse people and practices. Every year I leave with a bit of this and a touch of that tucked inside, waiting to be unpacked upon my return home.
Each year the weekend culminates in a ritual designed to reach into the hearts of the participants and pull out some insight to help determine the needed spiritual work for the coming dark season. Previous years’ themes include the abundance found in knowing that you are enough, dissolving the ego and reintegrating into the web of life, and the trap created by the belief that you know what the pattern is. This year’s ritual was different: instead of focusing on the individual self, it centered on the needs of our dying Earth and encouraged a personal, magical, spiritual response.
The ritual was long. It was physically demanding, it was at times very cold and uncomfortable and it was difficult. It had been orchestrated with the intent to reach deep, to the part inside each person that is vitally concerned with the future of our species, of all species, of our home on this planet. As a Pagan, a Goddess worshipper, a nature worshipper living day-to-day, it is very difficult to forget the evidence of that harm, even as my own life is livable, and enjoyably so. In ritual space, wide open to the spirits and the energies of the Divine in all things, it was impossible to ignore the reality of our planet, of those who call Her their home, of the suffering caused by the still-somehow-functioning machine that drives our global culture of consumption.
I was not alone in this ritual. Besides the dozens of unseen hands responsible for building and holding the container, many more walked before me, behind me, and a few beside me. I do not know what occurred in those hearts when faced with the strenuous and often-provocative points along the path. I only know what outward behavior I witnessed from many: bantering, silly comments and inane chatter during the moments when we were invited to sit and connect with the trees on the sacred mountain under the cold stars and half moon; the deterioration of sacred space into a mundane autumn bonfire despite the sincere efforts of the magic workers to maintain the ritual atmosphere; people snarking and laughing in the face of the deep work we were given the opportunity to do. I kept searching for a quiet place or for others who felt the weight of the work, who understood the solemn intent of the ritual and who were seeking to connect with the energy of the Earth. I’m sure there were others like me, but they must have been lost, too.
Some of those beside me were likely new to ritual, and on some level they cannot be held to the standard of understanding and behavior a seasoned practitioner would be; perhaps they were afraid or ill-prepared to handle such heavy, deep work. Some were experienced practitioners who are simply ego-driven and likely disappointed that the ritual was not the self-focused working typically offered at this annual gathering. And some were people who I’d thought would know better than to turn away from the answerless questions that the ritual, the magic, the Mother Earth asked us to consider on that lovely starlit night.
And so, fellow Witches, Pagans, energy workers, magic makers, I ask you: what is magic for? Is it simply a means to attain what personal desires drive us? A currency to exchange for goods? Must we receive personal benefit from our magical efforts? At what point do we look at ourselves and our practices, and acknowledge that our personal spiritual work will not heal the damaged ecosystem? When do we get smart enough, or scared enough, to use our will and our energy to work to stem the tide of destruction that is taking place right now, under our noses, in our names? If not in the context of an amazingly well-constructed ritual container, the product of dozens of hands and minds and hearts, where will we find the ability to connect to the very real needs of our Mother Earth?
I came down from the mountain grateful for the comfort of my soft bed, for my family pressing close to welcome me home, for the connection I feel to my bit of urban landscape. And, I came back afraid for the future of our planet and for our species, for if the magic worker cannot be trusted to act in the face of the evidence before us, if we cannot be called, then who can? Who will?
This is thankless work, and not everyone is prepared for it; not everyone is mature enough for it; not everyone wants to do it. And yet, it must be done. If not by us, then by who? What will it take to encourage action, if not the love of the beauty of the green Earth, the white Moon among the stars, the mysteries of the waters? We are being called to arise and to go unto Her, to be strong, agile, wise, courageous, and compassionate in whatever capacity we are able. We are being called to act in community, on behalf of the community of innocents who have no voice.
I came down from the mountain with a question pressing on my heart: What is magic for? The only answer I can find is to commit to this work: to connecting to the Earth beneath me, to listening to what She asks of me, and to taking action in Her name. By the Earth that is Her body, I sincerely hope that the seed planted in ritual months ago takes root in those who walked with me in sacred space and that we all can grow in community, for the good of all.