Respect and Conduct at Public Sacred Sites

When visiting a sacred site, we can get carried away. We can often forget that at public sacred sites there are others there who are on their own quest, pilgrimage, whatever. We want to rush in, to do the work, to perform ritual, to connect, to sing, chant and celebrate. But we have to think more carefully about shared space.

I recently went to the White Spring with my Druid College Year 3 apprentices. I adore the White Spring; it’s such a lovely site. However, after about 15 minutes various people and groups piled in to temple, and the words “Pagan Circus” comes to mind…

At one point, we had some Druids chanting the awen softly one corner. Lovely. But then another woman began singing in another corner. In a third corner, a man was standing and singing at the top of his lungs (which in that space is really, really loud). Trying to get away from all this noise, I made my way the quietest part of the Mirror Pool in the middle of the temple. I gazed into the water, slowly collecting my thoughts and meditating upon the sacred water, when suddenly three women, two naked and one clothed, clambered into the Mirror Pool, stood in the middle of it and held hands, performing some sort of ritual between themselves. Needless to say, my meditation was, by then, a hopeless cause.

We have so little opportunity to be who we are, especially at such sacred sites as the White Spring. But we also have to bear in mind that this is a public space. There are other Pagans there who are attempting to commune with the energies, the gods and goddesses, the spirits of place, and who don’t need others crashing in on their precious few minutes in that area. These sites are not a Pagan free-for-all. We must respect others and the place. You would never see a group of monks from an abbey in the south of France rock up to Ely Cathedral and suddenly perform Mass, or chant their evensong while the resident monks and visitors alike are doing their thing. We have to bear this in mind, that other people’s experiences are just as important and valid as our own.

And it’s not just Pagans visiting these spaces. The White Spring is open to everyone, from groups of nuns visiting from Spain to families from Yorkshire on a weekend getaway. There are very practical things we need to bear in mind at such places. For one, it’s still illegal to be naked in a public space. For another, not everyone wants to see naked people, for various reasons. Imagine the Catholic nun trying to connect with St Brigid, and then having a group of naked priestesses splashing her habit as they clamber in and out of the sacred pool (there is, indeed, a separate plunge pool for people to dip in, should they wish!). Imagine a primary school teacher asking the young girl what she did on the weekend, and her reply was “Daddy and I went to visit a spring, and watched naked ladies.”

Many of these sacred sites have special out of hours timings for those who wish to hold private ritual. Both Chalice Well and the White Spring offer this, and it should be borne in mind by those who wish to hold ritual at these sites. That way, you won’t be intruding on anyone’s time spent at these sites, or offend anyone who’s beliefs are not your own. It requires advance planning and commitment, but it’s not that hard. I’ve done it myself, and had private time at the White Spring to plunge my naked self in the icy waters with a couple of friends, or visited the Red Spring after closing hours.

Let’s bear in mind other people’s experiences, which are just as valid as our own. Let’s not turn our sacred sites into spaces of competing rituals and rites all happening at the same time. Let’s honour the sacredness of the site, and remember that it’s not just there for us. The energy of these spaces is not only for our own spiritual nourishment. We take, take, take all the time. Receive healing, inspiration and more at these sites, by all means. But remember to give back, by respecting the site, and other people visiting it.

Make it an enjoyable and memorable experience for all.

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The Little Pagan Monastery Weekend

945363_640774059272919_940773617_nI don’t think any of us expected the deeply moving and transformative powers that awaited us on our weekend of the Little Pagan Monastery Retreat.

Held over the weekend of 11 – 13 April 2014, we stayed for two nights at Little St Michael’s, the Companions’ Retreat House for Chalice Well and Gardens. I knew that staying and sleeping in such a sacred spot would be the basis for challenging soul work. We had 24 hour access to the gardens, which was a special blessing after hours, when we had it all to ourselves. The chance to meditate, pray and create ritual at the Red Spring was truly unique. It opened our souls to the very special power of the Vale of Avalon, wherein the Goddess was present in everything.

We walked the spiral path up the Tor, feeling the strong energies push and pull us in every direction as the wind whipped around us. We climbed the Tor twice that weekend, the second time to watch the sunrise. The mists of Avalon swirled around us as we may our ascent in the hour before sunrise, and settled over the Somerset levels in thick, low banks of cloud that seemed to shine with their own inner light. The sun rose from behind the far hills, a red-orange disc of flame that filled the soul with such joy it felt like we would burst with it.

A private visit to the White Spring later that day resulted in a very moving ritual, wherein participants immersed themselves in the sacred waters of the large, dark mirror pool. Souls were awakened, energy bursting forth from the dark womb of the waters and new journeys began for everyone.

The days followed a routine of morning, noon and evening prayers and meditation. Together we created a group prayer to be recited at these times.

We give thanks for this day

May awen and peace flow our way

In honour of this land we pray

Some participants had powerful dreams, which was likely to happen in such a sacred power spot. The lodging itself was incredible – a 400 year old building filled with such peaceful energy. We had the meeting room as well, a beautiful open space filled with light where we gathered for discussions and group work. The kitchen and dining room were huge – how many kitchens have a vesica pisces symbol in the floor?

All in all, this weekend was one that I shall remember for the rest of my life. What we learned from this weekend we will take into our lives wherever we may be, and use the wisdom of Avalon to nourish, strengthen and sustain us in all that we do. We prayed that Avalon itself was blessed in return by our love and devotion to the sacred spirits, and we look forward to returning as soon as we can.

Sacred Pilgrimage

Lisa and I arrived at Stonehenge mid-morning, alongside the bus tours and family tourists ready to go inside the fence and have a closer look at the world famous site.

Walking over the ditch into the complex itself, I asked the spirits of place for permission to enter, and to let them know that they were honoured.  The response I got – “Meh.”  They didn’t care.

Standing as close to the stones as you can get, it all looked rather small.  The jackdaws were having a lovely time of it, enjoying the attention. The stones, however, did not.  They still stood as tall and as proud as they were able, with the eyes of the world upon them, and yet they hated being a tourist attraction, a place where people simply come, look and then carry on with no real connection being made.  The stones themselves had withdrawn fully into their own being, not letting anyone or anything in.  They hated the tourists, unlike the jackdaws, who loved them (and the goodies that they brought).

For me, Stonehenge is a place of solemn ritual, not a place for hooting and hollering as the sun rises over that special point in the sky over specific stones.  It is a temple not unlike Notre Dame Cathedral – and you wouldn’t go in there and raise a racket, would you?  The original intention is lost to history, but if you try to feel it, to connect with it, there was something very wrong, and very sad about it all.  The intention wasn’t right.  I am perfectly aware that this is only my opinion, and that people may feel something totally different from the place.

Leaving Stonehenge we then made our way to Glastonbury; it was the destination to our pilgrimage.  We came in over the Butleigh road and saw the Tor shining in the sun – what a sight is always is!  Our hearts immediately opened to it, and we entered the sacred place that we call Avalon.

We made our way first and foremost to the Goddess Temple, to honour the Goddess. Inside was a Red Tent, which we smiled at the synchronicity of it all, for Red Tents have been popping up all over in our lives this past month.  The temple today was not a very restful or peaceful place, but I suppose that it is always shifting and changing. Children were running underfoot as we entered, and then the attending priestesses whispering loudly the whole time intruded a bit on my wish for silent reflection and immersion into the Goddess – along with the loud chinking of change right by my head as they emptied the donation pot to take to the bank before it closed. I know it is all necessary, but it certainly wasn’t peaceful. However, this was my first visit to the Temple, and so without going back to compare I know that my view is very one-sided.

Our B&B was on the hillside of the Tor itself, a lovely place with a labyrinth in the front yard and very down to earth, welcoming hosts with sharp wits and a love for the place that was infectious.  We climbed the Tor to watch the sunset and welcome the full moon as she rose, large and pinky-orange.  Time stood still on the Tor, and we have never experienced a sunset that slow, or a moonrise that took so long, but perhaps that was simply because the wind howled around us and we were freezing out butts off! Still, we gently drummed as we waited for the moon to rise on the sheltered side of the Tor, and eventually we did see it in its fully glory (though our best view was from the B&B itself!).

The following day we went to the White Spring, where we had booked an hour’s slot for peaceful ritual and awakening to this newly re-dedicated place of devotion to the powers of water and the Goddess herself.  The Victorians destroyed the old place where the White Spring used to tumble, covering the flora in calcite and making it a beautifully fey place, where green and white sparkled in the cove.  They had built a pumphouse in that very magical spot, to divert the water from the White Spring for Glastonbury town – a very foolish move, for it only lasted a couple of years before the pipes became so calcified that they could no longer use them. Glastonbury now gets it water from the Mendips, I believe.

At any rate, the pumphouse was reopened by the White Spring Trust, and is now one of the most evocative places that I have ever been. We were greeted by a lovely chap who showed us how to lock ourselves in, and then once we were sealed in the very dark, cavernous building we set to work.  Entering the threshold, the first view is of a large pool that the Trust built to collect water, a still and circular mirror surrounded by candles and fed in and out by a little waterfall.  Tall arched pillars stand to either side – it really does look like a film set, I thought!  So wonderful, so full of water – the sound of water was all that you heard, rushing down into the pool from the top of the left wall, and then out the other side, never disturbing the still surface of the large sacred pool itself. There was an altar to the Goddess, Brigit on the left hand side, and an altar to the Lord of the Wildwood on the right hand side.  We said our prayers to both, and sang our song of welcoming to the spirits of place, honouring them for all that they were. We disrobed, and then sang some more, honouring this very special place. Lisa took her drum out, and drummed softly.  We came together in front of the pool, and then it was time.

Stepping up onto the ledge, Lisa drummed and sang the Goddess chant, as I stepped into the pool of ice cold water.  The water was not very deep, but so very cold – I had been swimming in the deepest lakes of Sweden, and they were not this cold. Raising my hands over my head, I called to My Lady, to let her know that I loved and honoured her with all my body and soul, and lowered myself slowly into the black depths.  Once the water was past my waist, I could no longer breathe it was so icy cold – all you could do at that point was hold your breath and go completely under.  Coming back out, still unable to breathe, I gathered myself and rose up, standing with my arms wide, finally able to once again open my lungs and experience what can only be likened to the first breath of a newborn babe.  Exhilarated I raised my voice in zaghareet, my soul flung wide open to this Goddess of the Waters that was both so welcoming and so challenging. Grinning, I made my way out of the pool, and took up the drum as Lisa entered the still waters.

The beautiful follower of Elen, Lisa was all Earth Goddess energy blending into that of water as she slowly lowered herself, and came back up spiritually inspired to make the changes she so desired.  It was beautiful to witness and behold, as the candles flickered and the sound of the water falling mixed with my voice in chant as we gave ourselves up to the White  Spring.  Once out of the water, we drummed and danced in a soft, feminine way, and made our offerings.

Dried and with our time up, we left that dark and sacred place and stepped out into the sunshine once more.  We grounded ourselves and ate something, and then went to the Red Spring at Chalice Well Gardens, there to quietly reflect on what Glastonbury meant to us, and what we could give to honour it for all that is was.  A beautiful golden/yellow energy flowed from the wellhead, making  me smile as I sat beside it and opened my nemeton to this peaceful place, calling to my goddess Nemetona and letting my self release into her beauty in this wonderful place.  We need more places like Chalice Well and the White Spring, I said to myself, more places where one can open their soul in safety and honour the gods and goddesses that call to them, the spirits of place and the ancestors.  There were evocative places of reflection and communion.  I know that this can be found anywhere, but sometimes it is just nice to go to a place of beauty to be inspired, to open your eyes and see that beauty everywhere.  It’s difficult to explain.

We left the Red Spring and went back to Wellhouse Lane, just the other side of the wall to the road that now separates the White and Red Spring.  I took my bottles of water from each Spring and, with Lisa watching for traffic, stood in the middle of the road and brought the two waters together as they should have done, as they used to do, before the road was built and they were diverted from flowing together.  In the midst of the chaos of human life, I asked for peace and in the hope that one day these two otherworldly springs may once again join together.  A mother and a young child watched, and then came up to me afterwards, the young child wanting to speak to me.  “He thought you were a fairy”, the mother said, smiling as she later ushered him away.

We then spiralled up the Tor, making three circuits as we wound our way up.  Sitting at the top, with the spirits of the waters flowing from beneath the Tor, the ground rising up to meet the sky, the Spirits of the Three Worlds sang deep in our veins.  With so much elemental energy buzzing, I found it hard to connect – but moving aside I took out my medicine bag and reconnected with my self, and reminding myself before I could once again let go and feel that wonderful place again.  To let go of the self, you have to know the self first and foremost, I thought.  The sun shone brilliantly, the wind whipping our hair and the waters singing in our hearts.

After supper we retired back to the B&B, where we had our final experience of water in the land of Avalon, that land of water and mist – a lovely Jacuzzi!

After our vegetarian organic breakfast the next morning – this B&B had such a wonderful ethos – we made our way to Avebury.  The sun was hidden in a grey mackerel sky, for which we were thankful – our eyes did need a break after days and days of sunshine.  We walked the circle from quadrant to quadrant, honouring the stones that still stood and those that still lay beneath the ground, as well as those now broken up into wall boundaries, or buildings.  The most poignant part for me was coming to the inner circle where the Obelisk stone once stood.  Walking the circle as much as I could (for a church and other buildings were now in the place of where some of the inner circle lay) my gaze looked out and saw the stones as they would have been, as they should have been, though they were no longer there.  They were clear as day to my eyes, and Lisa’s chant that she received as a gift at the top of the Tor rang through my head the whole time.  I spiralled inwards towards the marker where the Obelisk once stood, and saw it standing huge and dark before me. I spiralled in and out of time, sometimes taking steps in this time, with the cars and tourists on the road, children playing on the banks, other times in a place of serene quiet where the huge sky overhead surrounded this massive stone. Flying through the shifts in time were the jackdaws, one who flew right next to me over where the Obelisk once stood – and through it where it now did stand, flickering in and out of time.  I made my offering there and then, and took out my stone that I have had for over twenty years, with the raven on it.  Another jackdaw alighted on the ground next to me, and I smiled at the little feathered fellow, saying my prayers to the spirits of place and honouring the ancestors.

Emerging back fully into the present time, we then visited the last two quadrants, where little newborn lambs with their umbilical cords still dangling down pranced near their mothers in soft and fuzzy joy.  Upon completing our circuit of the stones we then headed back home, stopping at West Kennet Longbarrow and Silbury Hill.

When we reached the barrow two youngsters emerged from the dark tomb, one with a drum, smiling at us and greeting us.  A felt a surge of energy follow them as they left, kind of pushing them back out into the sunlight even as I smiled at them and greeted them back.  I stood at the entrance and said a prayer to the ancestors and to My Lady of Sanctuary, knowing that I was entering a very sacred space.

The tomb was beautiful, but felt wrong – not because it was not a place for the living, though that could have been a big part of it, but that the energy there again was not right. Rose petals were strewn on the floor in the main back chamber, and unlit and dead tea lights were left in niches in the walls where the previous people had decided to leave them – littering, in my opinion.  I whispered my prayers for the ancient dead and left.

Standing out in the now emerging sunlight, we turned and looked back to the tomb.  It felt halfway between the open and welcoming energy of Glastonbury and the “piss off” energy of Stonehenge – it was withdrawing into itself, but hadn’t gone as far as Stonehenge yet.  The people who were coming here were had perhaps the best of intentions, but still not quite seeing the original intention, which is now lost to the mists of time.  However with a little common sense could it be sensed once again – it was a place of the dead.

Drumming and raising energy were all wrong for this barrow.  This was a place of silence, of darkness and of cool earth energy.  People were walking on top of the barrow, further leading to the erosion.  Why was this not fenced off to preserve this ancient monument of the dead?  Wildflowers grew upon the top of the barrow, being trampled by tourists and ritualists alike, along with other fauna that we heard in the yellowed grasses that had overwintered there – mice or birds squeaking deep within the sheltered blades of grass.

I think that the main thing for the barrow and Stonehenge was a loss of respect, something that was still quite evident and strong at Avebury and Stonehenge.  The Goddess was still be honoured at Glastonbury, but the intention at Stonehenge and West Kennet was lost.  They needed to become holy places once more. Failing that, we needed to create new ones.  Simply because something is ancient didn’t make it more worthy of honour that a newly built stone temple or place of burial for our dead.

Driving slowly through to the last stretch of home, through “Antler Alley” as I call it, where herds of deer live nearby, as well as the badgers, foxes, owls and other creatures, I considered the weekend, asking myself what I got out of it.  I then realised that a pilgrimage wasn’t about what you got out of it – it was about what you put in.  A pilgrimage was about giving yourself, of making the most of the time and energy that you put into it and offering yourself to the journey and the places themselves, which was what I had done.  It was a sacred time to stop and to honour all that which inspired you, to give of yourself without asking for anything in return. The gods, spirits of place and the ancestors should simply be honoured for what they are, not for what they can give us.

A sacred pilgrimage is an act of love and devotion to all that you consider sacred, and will reawaken your soul so that you can carry that into back to your homes and lives, sensing and seeing the sacred in everything.

 

The Lure of Glastonbury

Glastonbury TorEver since childhood, I’ve always loved the stories of King Arthur, of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.  I loved the tales of swords proclaiming kings, of beautiful and powerful women living on mysterious islands bestowing great gifts, of sorcerers and magicians that could both give rise to and destroy kingdoms.  This love has never left me, though it has changed and developed the more I learn about these tales, and the land upon which I live.

One of the things that has always captured my imagination, and always will, is Glastonbury Tor.  It is a wonderful place, a place of great beauty and incredible mystery.  For me, it is one of the holiest places in Britain.

The landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – rising out of the flat, drained Somerset levels is the Tor.  From a certain angle it looks like a woman lying down.  The Tor itself is a marvel, for carved into it are plateaus, in what appear to be a labyrinthine pattern rising to the summit.  On autumn and spring mornings, often the mist obscures the ground, and the Tor rises out of mist – we could easily believe we have been transported back to the Avalon of old.

What is inside the Tor is equally fascinating – the White Spring.  It is widely believed that inside the Tor is a large carvern, where the White Spring emerges, eventually making its way down into the town of Glastonbury.  Old records mention of a time when a small hole appeared in the top of the hill, and when things were dropped down, it took a long time before a splash was heard.  The White Spring was redirected and made inaccessible in the Victorian era, a large pumphouse created to supply the town and cutting off access to what was once a beautiful little spot where the spring emerged, calcifying everything around it, giving it a fey quality. Thankfully, in 2005 the White Spring Trust re-opened the disused pumphouse and has turned the small caverns, rooms and interiors into separate sites where one can once again pay tribute and honour the spirit of the White Spring.

Two monasteries or churches were built on the Tor in the Christian era – the first destroyed, I believe, due to the Tor itself shifting, causing the building to collapse.  Was the previous pagan site revolting against this new religion?  Or was it the sand and limestone ever shifting, finding a comfortable place to rest for the next 500 years?

All that is left on the Tor now is the tower, St Michael’s Tower.  The rest of the building was destroyed in the Reformation.  I both like and hate the tower atop the Tor – it looks beautiful, standing there all alone, a kind of spiritual trig mark; I hate the fact that anything mars the natural beauty of the Tor, and do think that the tower one day will also collapse, as nature reclaims her own.

Smaller hills surround the Tor, Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill.  Chalice Hill is said to the be source of the Red Spring, which flows down again like the White Spring to Glastonbury Town, and has the most beautiful gardens built around it.  For a small fee, one can enter the gardens and see it in all its glory (unlike the White Spring, which is free).  It was said that the Red Spring ran beneath a grove of Yew Trees, the iron rich water reflecting the blood red sap of the yew.

The Springs are perhaps the most significant thing about Glastonbury – White and Red, the colours of the Otherworld.  From two separate yet very close sources, these two very different springs come down to Glastonbury and are separated by the smallest of distances – I’m certain that at one point they ran together, but now I believe a street is blocking the union of the two springs.  Perhaps one day they will run together again.

The Tor, rising out of the watery levels, connected the Three Worlds of Land, Sea and Sky. The Red and White Spring issued forth from the fairy mound, the Gateway to the Otherworld.  The labyrinth way to the summit of the Tor was the spiral of life.  This is only a taste of the wonders that very special place – what a magical place!

Is it any wonder why I chose it at the setting for my latest book, The Isle of Apples?