Sunday, 23 December 2012

Into the Light

To all who have been following my virtual Advent Calendar, many thanks and blessings. Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka to spend my holidays there. I wish the deepest joy and peace of these holy days to all of you. May peace reign on Earth and love abound in all things.

Caritas abundat in omnia,
de imis excellentissima super sidera,
atque amantissima in omnia,
quia summo Regi osculum pacis dedit.

Divine love abounds in all things,
most exalted from the depths to the highest stars,
and she is most loving toward all,
for she has given the supreme king the kiss of peace.
-Hildegard von Bingen

And because I'm traveling to a Buddhist country, I'll quote His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. 

Much love to you all and a beautiful New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Silent Night

Guest post by Waverly Fitzgerald

Silence is the strength of our interior life.
Thomas Merton

When I first read that the feast day of Diva Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence, was celebrated on the winter solstice, I decided to spend the daylight hours of the solstice in silence, a custom I have maintained for many years. It requires a bit of advance preparation (warning my friends and family of my intentions, going shopping for any necessities ahead of time) but it has been well worth it. I love the way the silence changes everything. I become more aware of both the endless chatter that goes on in my mind and my inner voice. When I emerge from my day of silence, I feel like I'm emerging from a deep pool.

This week, at the darkest time of the year, look for opportunities to bring silence into your life. Go for a solitary walk, perhaps on the Day of the Winter Solstice. Turn off the other voices that normally fill your space: give up listening to the news, reading on the bus, or tuning in to NPR. Set aside an evening when you will be alone in your home, with no TV on, with no phone, with no book to read. What thoughts and experiences will you gather in silence?

Waverly Fitzgerald writes about seasonal time and holidays at Living in Season.

Monday, 17 December 2012

From the Horse's Mouth: Blessed Eponalia

A guest post by Miss Boo aka Queen Boudicca

The ancient Romans and Gauls knew something that many modern day humans have forgotten. Mares are divine.

The worship of Epona was popular throughout the Roman Empire. Epona was a Gaulish deity whose name means "divine mare" or "she who is like a mare." Epona was the the only Celtic divinity to receive her own official feast day in the Roman Calendar: Eponalia, December 18, was celebrated on the second day of Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter celebration (December 17 to December 23).

The patron deity of horses, ponies, donkeys, and mules, Epona also protected those who looked after equines or worked with them. Thus she was beloved of the Roman cavalry.  Epona's worship stretched from Roman Britain, across Gaul and Germania to Spain, Rome, and Eastern Europe.

Not only did she have a temple in Rome and her own holiday, but there were shrines to her in almost every stable. Her altars were adorned with fresh roses. Horses and donkeys were adorned with roses for her processions.

Some modern humans are inspired by these ancient traditions. At midsummer, my human ties roses in my beautiful mane when we ride out together.

In her iconography, Epona is often depicted as a majestic woman riding side saddle, always travelling from left to right. In the image at the top of the page, "Epona from Kastel," she is riding and carrying a round fruit or loaf. Epona is associated with abundance, fertility, and sovereignty.

A votive image from Budapest shows Epona as a great sovereign lady seated between two horses who feed from her lap.

In the Middle Ages, Epona's archetype lived on in literary figures such as Rhiannon in the Mabinogian.

Epona was a nurturing mother figure, a giver of abundance and plenty. But what does this mean for us today?

Anyone who has spent any time around us horses knows that we are capable of great empathy. Any person who is sad or depressed should spend some time just quietly grooming horses and being with them, and the healing will unfold. When my human is upset, I know right away and I'm especially gentle with her and give her lots of tender snuffles. I also love children and am extra careful around them.

People have reported great success using horses to treat autistic children and adults. Even people suffering from eating disorders can heal if they spend time with equines. Horses have huge hearts. Especially mares! We're hard-wired to nurture.

The Romans celebrated Eponalia by giving every horse, donkey, and mule a day of rest. Modern humans who keep horses can observe this by not working their horses on December 18 and by giving them extra apples, which are sacred to Epona. I hope my human spends a long time pampering and grooming me tomorrow. And she better not forget my treats, lol!

Midwinter can be a very hard time for equines. All the goodness has gone out of the grass. Hay and haylage, even straw, have become more expensive. Make sure your equines have enough nutritious food to eat. In the British Isles horses and ponies are particularly prone to mud fever from standing around in the cold and damp. Particularly if your horse or pony has feathers, make sure they don't have any untreated scabs. Some livery yards don't allow any winter turn out. Pity the poor horses that are locked in their stables 24/7. If you have a stabled  horse and no turn out, at least let them have a stretch and a role in the arena.

December 18 is an ideal day to donate to equine charities. Due to the economic crisis, countless horses have been abandoned or neglected. Donate to your local horse rescue centre.

What would human civilization look like had there not been a millennia-long partnership between humans and equines? Have a heart for the horses who have carried their humans so far and so faithfully.

          Epona's Day: The Gifts of Midwinter by Caitlin Matthews
          Only Foals and Horses Sanctuary

Miss Boo aka Queen Boudicca is a Welsh mare who lives in the Pendle region of Lancashire. A hereditary Welsh trad witch in the most archetypal sense of the word, Miss Boo lives in deep communion with the Earth and is a keeper of ancestral wisdom. She and her herd preserve an ancient matriarchal social structure unchanged since the dawn of their species. Don't mess with chestnut mares!  

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Santa Lucia comes to Brooklyn

Guest post by Diane Saarinen

Just before dawn, December 13th, any year: It’s always the same in our household. Sweet gingerbread cookies on a festive holiday plate, (non-alcoholic) glogg warming on the stove. I am already wearing the white flannel nightgown and red sash, frantically glancing at the clock and listening for sounds of reassuring snoring (I mustn’t wake him yet!) from my husband. I adjust my crown of candles. The candles are battery-operated. I don’t dare wear live ones – I have no Star Boys following me with a bucket of water and I am far too accident-prone.

Star Boys. December 13th. It can only mean one thing. Santa Lucia Day is here!

The Santa Lucia pre-dawn ritual is carried out in Sweden and Finland, where the December days are so dark it’s not hard to imagine the anticipation surrounding the “return of the light”. Although she was a Sicilian saint, somehow the legend of Lucia emerging from the cold winter darkness, her bright halo created by the crown of candles all aglow all the while carrying a tray of glogg (a hot mulled drink) and lussekatter (Lucy Cat pastries) while sweetly singing the Lucia song, has become a beloved seasonal tradition in the Nordic countries.

Our celebration here in Brooklyn is improvised, naturally. It’s the oldest daughter in the Scandinavian household who is Lucia – not the middle-aged wife I am. However, my husband and I have no children together. Age is relative, after all!

Another thing. I never did this as a child. My considerable interest in all things Finnish only became evident after my Finnish parents had passed away. It was a sad realization I had one day when I contemplated not hearing the sounds of “Finnglish” again, while remembering beloved customs of our culture that we did celebrate:  the food (Karelian pastries and “Swedish” meatballs); the holidays (hyvää joulua! – Merry Christmas! – complete with joulupukki, a very special Santa); and the attitude (sisu it’s called – look up this untranslatable word). So one December morning, over a decade ago, I created what is now a tradition for our family, the hybrid Brooklyn-Finnish Santa Lucia morning. Pikkujoulu (Little Christmas) is here! Happy Holidays.

Diane Saarinen is a publicist, Media Goddess, and runs the Saima Agency.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Lussekatter & the Wild Hunt

Guest post by E P Wohlfart

So dark is the night of midwinter
But behold, approaching Lucy
She comes, the Good One, to us with light
She comes with greetings of Christmas peace
She comes with candles in her crown
(Popular Swedish Saint Lucy's Day song)

On the 13th of December, the night of Midwinter in the old Julian calendar, my native Sweden is entranced by a beautiful procession of young girls and boys in white cotton gowns. The girls carry candles, the boys wear white star-embellished cones on their heads, and heading the procession is a girl with a crown of candles in her hair, and a ribbon of flowing red around her waist.

She is Saint Lucy, and the entire first half of Advent is spent voting on the thousands of lucky young ladies who will be this year's saintly representative in their locality. Like so many Swedish traditions, this one is born out of a mixture of foreign influence, a hint of genuine tradition, and a healthy dose of enthusiastic early 20th century effort.

The first half of Advent is also spent enjoying what is often held to be Saint Lucy's eponymous pastry: the lussekatt.  This sweet saffron bun is loved by all and eaten in enormous quantities. In reality, however, it has very little to do with the Sicilian martyr Saint Lucy and her modern light-bringing. Its older name is dövelskatt, from the word for Devil, and its purpose, amongst other things, has been to ward off evil.

This brings us back to Swedish Saint Lucy's Day celebrations. Long before there was a Catholic saint associated with this day, there was an Indo-European belief that around Midwinter the limits between this living world and the next became blurred. Ghouls, ghosts, demons, and, originally, Pagan gods of the dead, slipped back and forth across the border. It was a dangerous time to be a mortal human. Traditions relating to this belief are found all across Europe. In Sweden, it came in the shape of the lussivaka, or  the Lussi Wake. Because it was considered lethal to fall asleep on the Eve of Midwinter, people stayed awake through the night.  They were driven to this from the fear of the Lussi Hag, or in some parts of Sweden: the Lussi Man. This entity was in charge of lussiferda, a dangerous host of chaotic spirits that rode through the air and harmed, killed, or cursed anyone in their way.

The lussekatt pastry was not only a sweet treat to break the long evening's fast, it was a way of saving one's soul from those evil spirits. In parts of Sweden in the 19th century, it was carried while travelling in the dark of Midwinter. If there was any sound of demons behind you, tradition has it, you should toss the bun over your shoulder and run. The devils will surely choose to take the bun, rather than your soul.

It is also believed that the lussekatt, which can be interpreted to mean Lucifer-cat, came from Germany or the Netherlands, where the Child Jesus handed out treats for children and Lucifer, in the shape of a cat, beat them. The bright yellow bun was said to scare the Lucifer-cat away, since he fears the light.

Some scholars have traced the sweet treat to cult breads from the Viking era, celebrating Freya and the cats that drew her chariot. Given that some scholars have linked female leaders of Midwinter spirit hosts, such as the Swedish Lussi Hag and the German Perchta, with Freya that is certainly an interesting thought. To ward off lussi-demons of your own, though, or just to celebrate the light-bringer Saint Lucy, just follow this simple recipe:


50 g (1.8 oz) of fresh yeast, or enough dry yeast for 1 kg of flour
100 g (3.5 oz) of unsalted butter
0.5 litres (1 pint) of whole milk
250 g (8.8 oz) of quark (can be omitted if hard to find, just use more milk)
1 g (0.04 oz) of saffron
100 g (3.5 oz) of granulated sugar
0.5 teaspoons of salt
approximately 1 kg of white wheat flour
1 egg

Melt the butter, add the milk and heat to body temperature. Transfer the liquid into a bowl and mix first with the yeast, if fresh, and then with the remaining ingredients, except for the egg and the raisins. The dough should be smooth and no longer stick vigorously to the bowl, but if it gets too dry it will be difficult to roll. Cover the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes. Divide your dough into 20 or so parts.

Look at a diagram for lussekatter to determine how many parts to divide each one into for your preferred bun. The classic julkuse requires no further division. Simply take your piece of dough and roll it into a strip at least the length of your hand. Start rolling up the edges, each in a different direction, until they meet and form a S-shape. Put your lussekatter on a baking sheet and heat your oven to 225°C (435°F) while they rest for another 20 minutes.

Whisk up your egg with a fork and brush the buns. Push raisins into all the little spirals. Finally, bake for 5-10 minutes. Enjoy with mulled wine, and if you hear ghouls behind you, just drop the bun and run.

Originally from Sweden, E P Wohlfart is an ancient historian currently living in France.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

My Advent of Balance and Love

Guest post by Andrea King Collier

My first introduction to Advent was the little calendars we got at Holy Angels Cathedral School in Gary, Indiana. I am sure the nuns gave us some deep explanation about the significance of what it meant, but for us it pretty much meant the advent of Christmas break, and the countdown to Santa Claus. Nearly 50 years later, as I am pretty much burned out on Turkey Thursday, Black Friday, Small Biz Saturday and Cyber Sunday, I circle back to something more than the holiday hustle.

Advent in Latin means to come to, as in to come to Christ. I think that for me, if I am going to come to Christ, I should be doing it every day. Any day. The idea of a blueprint of getting my spirit on is a little binding. But as I come out of my Thanksgiving stupor, the notion of coming to is pretty true. Not very spiritual but true. And it is a symbol, this year of being able to slow down and savor love, kindness and hope.

In the past decade or so I sort of hated the holidays. There has been so much self-inflicted pressure to get the big pay off of the perfect Martha Stewart Christmas. I can never live up to it, must less “come to.” And then there is the overwhelming feeling of loss that comes with the days before Christmas, the reminder of all the people that I shared this time with who have passed on. Mother, Father, Grandparents. It is the occupational hazard of living through 55 Christmases, I suppose. This time, the days before Christmas make me feel like a high end Dickens orphan. By the time Advent is over my perfect Christmas boils down to taking all the obligatory trappings of the holiday down as quickly as possible. By the time I get to the day after Christmas, my birthday, the house looks like it’s just another winter day. It is the fresh start, the shaking off of all my imperfections and deficits. And I start anew by forgiving myself for all of it.

I am not the Grinch, I promise. I am the perfect storm of a person who sees so much of her life through the lens of December. There is the maddening bombarding of music, presents, cards, parties. And then there is the balance I need to give to it in introspection and earnest prayer.  I try to take this time to look at who I have become and who I want to be. Do I take up or give energy? Do I live in joy? Do I curse too much? (Answer is always yes.) How often did I throw the zinger or take the cheap shot?  Did I tear someone down or build them up? And when I take the ornaments down, and vacuum up all the dried out needles from the tree, how will I live and do better next year?

I was raised Christian, but a do no harm, take you as you are kind of Christian. I am a quiet spiritual person. I don’t care what your religion is, as long as you are not hateful, mean-spirited or sanctimonious (not asking for much). I weep at certain Christmas carols—each and every time. I love a terrible school Christmas pageant if there is a baby Jesus and an angel. And I get absolutely inconsolable at a Charlie Brown Christmas. When I go through a bookstore and see an Advent Calendar I smile, thinking about getting to “come to.”

Andrea King Collier is a multimedia journalist and author of Still With Me… A Daughter’s Journey of Love and Loss.  Twitter:@andreacollier  Facebook: andrea.collier

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Guest post by Waverly Fitzgerald

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought for you are not ready for thought.
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
T S Eliot, "East Coker," Four Quartets

I've been thinking a lot about waiting, since that is the activity of Advent, a time of waiting for the Sun to be reborn at Winter Solstice, or the Son to be born in the manger at Bethlehem.

The Advent ceremony is one of many Christmas customs which represent in a physical form the mingled excitement and impatience of waiting. You open the doors and windows of an Advent calendar one day at a time until on Christmas Day, depending on whether or not your calendar is a religious one or a secular one, you open the door on the manger scene or on a star at the top of a Christmas tree. The setting out of the creche in Christmas households also marks time. In my childhood, we set up the stable first, then slowly peopled it with figures and animals, shepherds and sheep, Joseph and Mary and finally, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus was placed in the manger. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles, an additional candle at sunset each night for eight nights, is another visible marking of the passing of time at the darkest time of the year.

Midwinter. The darkest and coldest time of the year is also the time of the most miraculous birth, whether you celebrate the birth of the Sun or the Son of God. And the time leading up to it is charged with anticipation, like the last weeks of pregnancy.

There is a certain point in late pregnancy when the waiting seems oppressive. Every morning you wake up thinking, "This is probably the day!" and when nothing happens, you can't believe that you could possibly endure another day, of waiting, of pressure, of physical discomfort. I've always believed this is Nature's way of changing a woman's attitude towards childbirth so that what once seemed terrifying now seems like a blessed relief.

Once labor begins, the pregnant woman is swept away by a natural process which utterly transforms her life, and wipes out all memory of the tedious days of waiting. So it is with the dark days of winter, whether their end is signaled by the excitement of presents under the Christmas tree or marked by the green shoots of spring. But until then, how to get through the darkness?

The other day while waiting in line to order at my neighborhood bagel shop, the woman in front of me was impatient. She shifted back and forth as she waited for her bagel to be prepared. Then her Americano didn't have enough water in it. She tapped the counter with her fingers while more water was added. While I was ordering my breakfast, she showed up again and slammed the creamer down on the counter. "Wouldn't you know?" she wailed, "that this would happen on the morning I'm running late? The creamer is empty!"

Meanwhile I heard an interchange between the two women behind me who were unsure who had gotten in line first. "It doesn't matter to me," said one woman. "I don't mind waiting. Anticipation makes the food taste better."

I thought about this throughout the day as I reflected on the theme of waiting. The angry woman did not get her meal faster than the patient one and she probably had a harder time digesting it. When you see only the goal as worthwhile, then waiting is a hideous state that must be endured to achieve the goal. If you can make waiting an enjoyable process, then you get two benefits. The pleasure of the goal and the pleasure of that liminal period which precedes it.

The beauty of the Eliot poem at the start is the way it shows us how to embrace waiting. Waiting is really not waiting for something, or, if we are waiting for something, what we get is often not what we thought we were going to get. No, waiting is a mysterious place between the letting go of desire and the birth of a new desire. If we think we know where we're going, we lose the opportunity to dwell in the mystery, to allow new impulses to emerge from the darkness, to allow new desires to enter our hearts.

So practice waiting, with heart, with art, this year as you endure the long, dark days before the Winter Solstice. When you must wait--when you are stuck in traffic, at the doctor's office, for the bus--adopt an attitude of curiosity about waiting. Can you enjoy the experience? Filling that empty time with another activity, like listening to books-on-tape in the car, is not necessarily the only way to enjoy it. I have a friend who loves his commute across the floating bridge every morning, often in bumper-to-bumper traffic, because he simply enjoys looking at the sky and the water.

The next time you experience an ending in your life (like the end of a relationship, the end of a friendship, the end of a job, the end of a project), consciously set aside some waiting time, time when you will not go out seeking a replacement but give yourself time to experience the emptiness that follows loss and precedes desire.

Waverly Fitzgerald writes about seasonal time at Living in Season.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Three Gifts

Guest Post by Carolyn Lee Boyd

The weeks leading up to the Solstice are a time of grace, of sacred bounty given and gratefully received – the beauty and abundance of snow and rime, the warmth of hearthfires and seasonal celebrations, the deep potential of the dark and the joyful promise of the light. During this time of year, I love to walk about a mile in utter darkness from my work to the train station on my way home each evening. The road is without streetlights, so for long stretches I am completely surrounded by absolute blackness. Tonight as I walked, I received three gifts.

The first gift is dark’s profound acceptance of who I truly am. In the dark, I feel the benevolent embrace of the cosmos. I can feel myself to be only my essential self because no one can see me to judge or demand I play a role. There I am in nature’s womb where dreams are hatched, where I can be a seed with unlimited possibility unbound by the outside world of daylight. I enter the dark part of my walk the person who I am required to be by day to fulfill my responsibilities and, while there, become reborn as more truly myself, purified by just those few moments I spend in dark’s sanctuary.

While in the dark stretch of my walk, I looked up at the sky that glitters so brightly with stars without the dimming of artificial lights. I focus on one star and let its light reach my face. I contemplate how its rays have taken millions of light years to come to the exact spot where I am standing at just that moment.  I realize that every instant is blessed, that each second we are bombarded by light that has travelled indescribable distances for us simply to be bathed in its particles. I wonder if any of those rays of light come from suns with planets with conscious life, and if some being will look in our direction some millions of years from now, and see light emitted by our sun this night. I know that, however, solitary I may feel myself to be in the utter darkness of my walk, I am connected by an almost infinite number of strands of light to all the universe, receiving the light of their sun and being witness as our sun sends out its rays, too. This is the second gift.

I begin to walk again and eventually I can see the glow of the shopping center by the train station. Soon I hear the supermarket’s doors opening and closing and the chatter of people waiting for the train. In the distance I can just make out the red flashing lights of the gates over the track. I have come back to the human world of light, bringing with me my two gifts. A young boy nervously asks me if this is where the train stops. I remember the power of accepting and being accepted and that I am interconnected to all beings. So, instead answering quickly and then returning to the silent blank face I use in public places, we chat until the train arrives and smile as we board together. The Winter Solstice is not something that happens to us, but rather, we are ourselves the Return of the Light for others when we see them with the loving eyes of darkness and the bonds between us created by the light. This season, I will not only celebrate the Solstice, but I will be the Solstice, too. This is the third gift. May you find your Solstice gifts of both the darkness and the light.

Carolyn Lee Boyd blogs at Goddess in a Teapot, a celebration of creativity and women's spirituality.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Dear Readers, due to the incompetence of British Telecom, I have been without internet broadband for a number of days, and thus our Viriditas Advent Blog was on hiatus. I needed to get a viable laptop and hotspot to work with and download Google Chrome before I could resume posting. But here, at long last,
is Christy K. Robinson's poignant guest post about Mary Barrett Dyer, an early American who died  defending religious freedom.

Guest Post by Christy K Robinson

If you know of Mary Barrett Dyer, perhaps it’s the memorial statue at the Massachusetts State House; or that she was the Quaker woman hanged in Boston in 1660.

Mary was born in London at the time the King James Bible was published, and was admired for her intellectual, spiritual, and physical beauty. She and William Dyer were married under Anglican liturgy at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but in 1635, they emigrated to ultra-Puritan Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and were immediately admitted to membership in the First Church. (Some people committed suicide because their membership was denied.) The Dyers had to conform to Puritan ways to be accepted so quickly. However, Governor Winthrop observed in 1637 that Mary was “addicted to revelations.”

Mary became a disciple of Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissident who claimed that God revealed insights about scripture to her—a “weak-minded” (but highly-educated) woman. She pointed out that instead of trying in vain to earn salvation by perfectly keeping the law, believers were set free from eternal damnation by God’s grace. They could trust divine leading in their conscience, with no need for intercessors or interpreters.

But the Puritan theocracy believed if every man did as he pleased, all would be anarchy. After several ecclesiastical trials, the Hutchinsons and Dyers and about 75 Massachusetts families were exiled for sedition and heresy. They purchased Rhode Island from the Indians, and founded a new colony in 1638.

Mary visited England in early 1652, where she observed several new religious movements, including the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In some respects similarly to Anne Hutchinson, the Friends believed that Old Testament laws were obsolete, and had been replaced by God’s voice in the individual’s conscience, which was revealed during times of silent reflection and worship. They experienced God as Light and overwhelming love, in contrast to the vengeful Judge who predestined only certain people for eternal life. Some of the scripture they quoted included:
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. … If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7.
Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light. ~Jesus. John 12:36.
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Ephesians 5:8

In 1657, Mary returned to America, was accused of being a Quaker, and was cast into Boston’s prison for weeks before William Dyer learned of it and rescued her. Thus began three years of Mary’s repeatedly defying religious oppression to gain relief and freedom for the violently persecuted.

Quakers in New England were fined, beaten, branded, whipped with a knotted cord, banished, tied to carts and dragged from town to town, imprisoned without food or heat in winter, and banished “on pain of death” for their efforts and beliefs.


For supporting Quakers, Mary was arrested and imprisoned at least five times, and defied banishment. Finally, she was sentenced to death. She wrote a letter to the General Court on the night before her execution date. “I therefore declare that in the fear, peace, and love of God I came … and have found such favor in his sight as to offer up my life freely for his truth and people’s sakes. If this life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me to accept it from you, so long as I shall daily hear or see the suffering of my dear brethren and sisters.”

She believed that her death would be so shocking to the public that it would bring about the end of the severe tortures and repression of Quakers by the Puritan leaders. Many Puritans sympathized with and helped Quakers, and had begun to turn away from their harsh, vicious government. Fearing political unrest, the court granted a reprieve when she was on the gallows. She was imprisoned in Plymouth two weeks later, spent the winter at Long Island, then deliberately returned to Boston seven months later—to obey God’s command, and commit civil disobedience.

She was again condemned to death, and was hanged on June 1, 1660. Because her vengeful Puritan former pastor offered a cloth to cover her face, I believe that the Light was strong on her countenance.

Mary’s sacrifice was successful. Her letters were presented posthumously to Charles II, who ended executions for religious offenses. Her husband and close friends had significant influence on the 1663 Rhode Island royal charter of liberties that granted freedom of conscience to worship (or not), and retained separation of church and state. The charter was a model for the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which has in turn been the beacon of light for constitutions around the world.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5.

Christy K Robinson blogs about Mary Dyer while she writes a biographical novel on the Dyers of London and Rhode Island, who are her 12th-generation ancestors.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Light as a Choice

Guest post by Christy English

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.”
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

We get to choose whether or not to be light bringers. In every moment, whatever actions we take, we can bring light or darkness. Of course, it is often easier to focus on ourselves, our petty problems, our losses, our defeats.

The shadows are distracting to the point that we think they’re all there is. But light makes shadow, even if the Source is unseen.

The Light that came into the world on the birth of Christ has always been with us, and will always be. Like the green, verdant, ever-living Viriditas that Hildegard von Bingen wrote of, this light fills the world. We carry it in our hearts, whatever our faith or lack thereof. We are a part of this river of light that is moving through the world, whether we know it or not.

In every moment of every day, we can choose to bring light to a situation, or not. In the quote above, I think His Holiness is asking us to think of our daily lives, and how we can do better in each moment. It is an imperfect world, and we are imperfect, but that does not change our responsibility, to ourselves or to each other.

In order to express this light in our lives, however, we must find it.

Every tradition has it own path into this river of light. Prayer, meditation, a walk in a green wood, facing the ocean, the desert, the sky. Any or all of these might work, or they might not.

Only you can discover your own path into the light that lives within you. Even to look is an act of faith. Even to look is to begin to find it.

Our breath is the simplest way to open ourselves to the possibility that this light exists, that it is not a fairy tale told by fools to quiet the masses. Our breath is an ever-moving river, a mirror of that divine grace that lives within us all. You might choose to sit, to let everything else go, and to follow it.

This perhaps is the hardest thing for us to do in this modern world, to simply sit and follow our breath wherever it leads. But know that this task was hard for every man and woman who did it before you. You are not alone in this. You are a link in a chain of seekers that leads from the beginning of time, to now, and onward into a unknown future that none of us living today will ever see.

So you might find a spot, indoors or out. You might choose to stand in place, or sit, and simply breathe. You will find that the breath is not simple, that the shadows are there as well, but keep following it. The light is there, too, behind this world, supporting it, nurturing it, waiting until we all decide that we want to come home.

Christy English is the author of the Regency romance, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE as well as the historical novels THE QUEEN’S PAWN and TO BE QUEEN about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Please visit her at

Monday, 3 December 2012

Thoughts after the first Sunday in Advent

Great Milton Parish Church, Oxfordshire

Guest post by Stephanie Cowell, continuing our Viriditas Interfaith Advent series

Advent reminds me why I first began to haunt churches.  It all comes back again.

I am a church mouse, unable to pass one without pushing open doors and finding myself in a deeply moving place. I particularly love small stone churches dimly lit, full of candlelight and old incense. Our lives change so fast; you go to sleep and find the world changed in the morning.  And so I go through England and Europe pushing open the wood doors of churches with faded frescos on the wall, kneelers embroidered by the altar guild, dipping candles and worn prayer books to find my roots and my stability.

I wasn’t raised with any spiritual tradition and I think always wanted one. In my early forties, I became an Anglican.  I could have chosen a number of paths but this one I think found me. I live in the heart of New York City and unreasonably wanted to belong to a small English church. Unreasonably I found one down the street.  We use the original 16th century Common Prayer translations, the very same words which Shakespeare knew by heart.  I hear the church bells through my window. I live in one of the greatest, fastest-paced cities in the world, and belong to an English parish church.

Yesterday, December 2nd, Advent (the period of waiting for the birth in Bethlehem) began. There was anticipation in the air of all sorts of mysterious but comforting things, mysteries which are both fresh and comfortably worn as childhood books. We are traveling the weeks until Christmastide.  We are waiting for something we know will come in this world where you do not always know.

I was writing my first novel at the time I became an Anglican; it was an Elizabethan novel about an actor who longs to be a priest, and has several scenes set in and around the church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, near Cripplegate in London. The church was first built around 1100 and destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and then went on to a complicated history of rebuilding. Of all the hundreds of churches I have visited, this one that I have only seen in my mind (now only foundation stones and a garden remain) is one of the dearest. My hero’s journey of faith became mine or perhaps it was the other way around. The novel Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician, priest, the first book of a trilogy, has gone on to its own rich journey.

Today in church they sang the great Litany of Thomas Tallis (died 1585). The Litanist led the procession around the church singing the petitions, followed by acolytes bearing candles, clergy and the congregation. The words were the same as heard by the Elizabethans. “That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so as in due time we may enjoy them; We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.”

That all our good wishes may be heard and granted! And in this season of Advent we can believe that they are heard and meanwhile, as we wait and listen, so much of what we long for seems completely possible.
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. She is currently working on several projects. Her website is

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Hildegard's House of Light

Elizabeth Erickson’s 2008 painting “Hildegard’s House of Light.” 

Today marks the First Sunday of Advent and the first post of our Viriditas Interfaith Advent Calendar, “Journey into Light.”

Here in Northern England, I find myself plunging into the depths of midwinter darkness. It is in this womb of night and stillness that the Light is reborn. Through the ages and across cultures, world faith traditions have marked this sacred passage through the darkness, as our guest bloggers shall explore in the coming days of Advent.

In Christian tradition, Advent is a period of expectant waiting, of anticipating the birth of Christ. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” This First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Western Christian liturgical year.

The Advent wreath and Advent calendar are relatively recent innovations. Christmas and Advent celebrations have gone through many permutations throughout history, as our guest bloggers will reveal, from boisterous celebrations with mummers and feasting to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan backlash in which he outlawed Christmas because he believed the feast was far too pagan.

Back in Hildegard von Bingen's day, in the 12th century, Advent was a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for the Twelve Days of Christmas, which begin on Christmas Eve and end on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

The season would have been especially numinous for Hildegard as a child anchorite at the remote Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Imagine the enduring the depths of midwinter without central heating or electric lights, in an age when even religious people believed that there were demons lurking in the shadows. This would have pitched Hildegard into the deep drama of the season—the rebirth of the Light out of teeming darkness.

One German seasonal tradition that young Hildegard might have treasured was the Barbara Zweig, or the Barbara Branch. This was a branch cut from a fruit bearing tree on the Feast of Saint Barbara, December 4. Kept in a vase of water in a warm and sunlit corner, it would bloom on Christmas Day.

There were other, more atavistic traditions associated with the season. In Northern Europe, long before the Christian era, the Twelve Nights of Yule were held in awe—time out of time when fate hung suspended, when secrets were revealed and fortunes could be reversed, when the most powerful magic was afoot. Well into the Christian era, people believed that the ghostly Wild Hunt still roared across the midwinter skies along with the gales and storm winds.

I experienced these traditions first hand when I lived in Germany. In the Bavarian town of Kirchseeon, just east of Munich, mummers in hand-carved wooden masks perform the “Perchtenlauf,” a wild torchlit procession through the winter forest to awaken the dormant nature spirits and call back the dwindling sun. I'll discuss these folkways in greater depth in another post.

Now we return to young Hildegard, the child anchorite at Disibodenberg Monastery.

Here is an excerpt from Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

After Vespers, I went to see if our Barbara Branch still had enough water. Though the buds had once seemed to swell, it now felt like a dead twig I could snap between my fingers. The forest would not stop haunting me. How the wild places called out to me in the face of Jutta’s direst warnings. Again and again she told me that I must dread everything dark and untamed.

Demons ruled the nocturnal hours, she insisted. On stormy nights, outside our anchorage walls, trees writhed, tossing their branches against the moon-drenched sky. As I lay in my narrow bed, my ears rang with the shrieking wind, the cries of owls and wolves in search of prey.  

Little did it matter that Christmas was fast approaching. For centuries before the Irish missionaries brought the faith of Christ to this land, before Carolus Magnus toppled the Irminsul, the idolatrous pillar of the heathens, my ancestors had held the Rauhnaechte, the Twelve Nights of Yuletide, in awe—time out of time when fate hung suspended, when secrets were revealed and fortunes could be reversed. This I knew from Walburga’s tales. The servants and peasant folk back home had muttered stories of the Old Ones roaring across the midwinter skies: the Wild Hunter of a thousand names in pursuit of his White Lady with her streaming hair and starry distaff, the whirlwind before the storm.

Leaving Jutta to her dreams, I crept out of bed and stole into the courtyard where I pranced barefoot in the swirling snowflakes like the mummers who came to Bermersheim every Yuletide in their fearsome wooden masks to frighten away harmful spirits.

A gale howled overhead, and the cold stung my soles, sending me spinning as the Wild Hunt of Walburga’s nursery stories raged overhead, that endless stream of unbanished gods and the souls of the unchristened dead. Anyone who dared venture out on a night such as this risked being swept along in that unearthly train.

But did I cross myself and flee inside to safety? No, I raised my face to the clouds racing across the full moon and I begged those invisible riders to take me with them.

Clouds shrouded the moon. Everything went black. I plummeted, down and down, as if there would be no end to my falling. De profundis clamavi ad te. Gazing up from the depths, I saw a circle of sky, now emptied of moon and stars. Had I been cast into hell for my sin? From out of that murk came a white cloud bursting with a light that was alive, pulsing and growing until it blazed like a thousand suns.

In that gleaming I saw a maiden shine in such splendor that I could hardly look at her but only catch glances like fragments from a dream. Her mantle, whiter than snow, glittered like a heavenful of stars. In her right hand she cradled the sun and moon. On her breast, covering her heart, was an ivory tablet and upon that tablet I saw a man the color of sapphire. A chorus rose like birdsong on an April dawn—all of creation calling this maiden Lady. The maiden’s own voice rose above it, as achingly beautiful as Jutta’s singing.

I bore you from the womb before the morning star.

I didn’t know whether the maiden was speaking to me, lost and wretched, or to the sapphire man in her breast. My vision of the Lady was lost but her voice lingered. You are here for a purpose though you don’t understand it yet.

Barefoot and mother naked, I found myself within a greening garden so beautiful, it made me cry out. Each blade of grass and newly unfurled spring leaf shimmered in the sun. Every bush and tree was frothy with blossom and heavy with fruit at the same time. In the midst of that glory, the Tree of Life with its jeweled apples winked at me, and yet I saw no serpent. The Lady’s voice whispered: See the eternal paradise that has never fallen.

I saw a great wheel with the all-embracing arms of God at its circumference, the Lady at its heart. Everything she touched greened and bloomed.

Pealing bells wrenched me back into this world. The monks were ringing in Christmas morning. I lay on my pallet, the blankets piled over me, my legs swaddled in damp cloth. Above me hovered a maiden with glowing blue eyes. Her veil had slipped and the sun shone through her halo of cropped auburn curls. Whispering my name, Jutta held out a blossoming apple branch, each pink and white flower scented of the Eden I had glimpsed.  

Thursday, 8 November 2012

ILLUMINATIONS Amazon Reader Review Contest

Dear Hildegard fans,

Writers love to hear feedback on their work.

Post a Reader Review for Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen on or and send me an email saying you've done so. The writer of the most insightful review will win a free CD of Anonymous 4's The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen AND a free bottle of the Hildegard-themed Veriditas Perfume by Arabesque Aromas, made from all natural ingredients:

 Contest ends November 20. The winner will be announced shortly thereafter.

If you've already written a review and wish to enter, just send me an email.

Thanks so much for participating!

All good wishes from Mary

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Blessed All Hallows

Last weekend in England, the clocks fell back. Now the long northern darkness is closing in. People who live in more southerly climes might have a hard time imagining just how DARK it is in the North in this waning end of the year.

Imagine the English gothic novel brought to life as a living reality, everything pitch black at 4:30 on an overcast day.

Today is one of the biggest turning points of the year--All Hallows Eve. Its secular and commercial manifestation with the mass-produced trick or treat paraphenalia cannot hold a candle to the true signficance and gravitas of this ancient feast.

All Hallows has its roots in the Celtic Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. This was a time of inclement weather, when the Wild Hunt, that endless stream of ancestral spirits, raged overhead--something that might feel all too close to home for those who dwell in Hurricane Sandy's path. Even in the digital age, we are still very much at the mercy of the elements and the all too fragile balance of nature.

Many of Samhain's folkways were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls believed to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest held fears—that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings—reunion with their cherished departed.

After the English Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead—a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.

Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.

In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul,
Bones and all.

What do these old traditions mean to us today?

All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of re-membering the past. We honour all those who have gone before us. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.

Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain


Soul Cake Recipes

Souling Songs

In 1106, on November 1, the Eve of All Souls, eight-year-old Hildegard von Bingen, a child dedicant to monastic life, endured a searing rite of passage that marked her death to the secular world and her new existence as an oblate-anchorite. (See the video at the top of the page.)


At dusk on the Eve of All Souls, the rite began.

In our guesthouse chamber, I froze, bare feet on the cold stone floor, as Jutta tugged my earthly garments over my head and let them tumble to the ground.

“You don’t need these anymore, ” she told me.

She wore nothing but a death shroud of sackcloth woven from coarsest, scratchiest goat hair. As goose pimples rose on my naked flesh, Jutta made me raise my arms so that she could fit an identical shroud over my body. The goat hair dug into me, making me want to claw my skin to relieve the itch.

Jutta then bowed her head as low as it could hang and shuffled out of the room, leaving me to shuffle after. We processed to the abbatial church, now alight with tapers, as though a funeral were underway.

At the west end of the church lay a bed of black earth strewn with bare branches and dead leaves. Jutta flung herself belly down in the dirt. Dust to dust. I bridled, my stomach lurching. I remembered the story of Saint Ursula, the 11,000 murdered virgins, the rotting flesh, and then it struck me like a blow, the full weight of what it meant to be an anchorite. The funeral tapers, the bed of earth—this night, I was to die. To be buried with Christ.

Flinging myself toward Mother who watched with the rest of the congregation, I mouthed the words save me. Mother’s face flushed. Weeping in earnest, she stepped toward me while my heart pounded in mad hope. But her gaze left me mute. It was as though she had taken a silken thread and sewed my lips shut so I could only mewl, as weak as a kitten, not sob or wail or rage. Taking my hands, Mother guided me downward, into that dirt.

“It’s God’s will, ” she whispered. “We must all obey those who stand above us.”

With trembling hands, she arranged my prone body till at last I lay corpse-still beside Jutta.

Holy water fell on my back like rain, wetting me through the prickly hair shirt. Incense and the stink of dank earth filled my nose. Finally the archbishop commanded me and Jutta to stand. Numb, my head ringing, I staggered to my feet and chanted the words they told me to chant.

Abbot Adilhum gave me and Jutta burning candles to hold in each hand.

“One for your love of God, ” he said as the hot wax dripped down to sear my fingers. “One for your love of your neighbors.”

I felt no love at all, only shuddering emptiness.

The monks sang Veni creator. At the abbot’s prompting, I mumbled, “Suspice me, Domine.” Receive me, Lord. I placed my candles beside Jutta’s on the altar before hurling myself back into the grave dirt beside Jutta. My ears burned as the monks chanted what even I recognized as the Office of the Dead.

“Rise, my daughters, ” said the archbishop, leading us out of the church and into our tomb, our sepulcher, the narrow cell built onto the edge of the church.

My eyes flooded as he swung his incense thurible round and round. There was only the low doorway and no windows, save for the screen viewing into the church and the revolving hatch where the monks could pass in food to Jutta and me without our even seeing who stood on the outside. Mother and Rorich were already lost to me, outside in the courtyard, chanting along with the monks. I’ll never see their faces again.

“Here I will stay forever, ” Jutta sang. “This is the home I have chosen.”

I choked and coughed as the archbishop sprinkled dust on us. Every part of my body shriveled as he spoke the Rite of Extreme Unction, reserved for those on their deathbed.

“Obey God, ” he told us before leaving our cell.

Tears slid from my eyes as I watched the lay brothers brick up the doorway that Jutta and I had passed through but would never be allowed to leave. As Jutta murmured her prayers, I lay rigid on that cold stone floor as though I were truly a corpse in my crypt.

When the last brick was laid in its place, blocking every hope of escape, Jutta took my hands and pulled me to my feet. In the light of the single taper the monks had left us, I saw her smile.

“My dearest dream has been made real, ” she said.

At that, she blew out the taper, and coffin-darkness enclosed us.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Hildegard von Bingen: Doctor of the Church

Hildegard von Bingen: Doctor of the Church and Timeless Visionary    

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard on May 10, 2012—873 years after her death. Today, October 7, 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine.

But what does Hildegard mean for a wider secular audience today?

I believe her legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women.

While writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests. Although Pope Benedict XVI is elevating Hildegard to Doctor of the Church, he is suppressing Hildegard’s modern day sisters--the nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, who stand accused of radical feminism.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—according to the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was entombed in an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, one that can inspire us today.

Too often both religion and spirituality have been interpreted by and for men, but when women reveal their spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges, one we haven’t seen enough of. Hildegard opens the door to a luminous new world.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows,” the voice of God reveals in Hildegard’s visions, recorded in her book, Liber Divinorum. “I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.”

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature, and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg inside the womb of God.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

May Hildegard's luminous visions inspire us all.

My novel, Illuminations, based on Hildegard's dramatic life, is published October 9.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Blog Tour!


For those of you who live outside Minnesota and can't attend my Book Tour Events, I shall also be on Blog Tour throughout most of October. Visit my blog tour stops, read articles and interviews about Hildegard, leave a comment, and you could win a free copy of my brand new ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN!

October 9th: Jenn’s Bookshelves

October 10th: The Burton Review 

October 12th: Kris Waldherr Blog 

October 15 and 16th: Passages to the Past 

October 17 and 18: Beyond the Fields We Know 

October 19: Gaian Soul Blog 

October 22 and 23: Literate Housewife Blog 

October 24 and 25: Booking Mama 

October 29 and 30: Peeking Between the Pages

November 5 and 6: Devourer of Books 

Date tba: Goddess in a Teapot 

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Feast of Saint Hildegard

September 17 marks the feast day of Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), the great visionary abbess and polymath.

Long regarded as a saint in her native Germany, she was only canonized in May this year—873 years after her death. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine.

But what does Hildegard mean for a wider secular audience today?

I believe her legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women.

While writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests. Although Pope Benedict XVI is elevating Hildegard to Doctor of the Church, he is suppressing Hildegard’s contemporaries, the sisters and nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, who stand accused of radical feminism and other doctrinal errors.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was entombed in an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, one that can inspire us today.

Too often both religion and spirituality have been interpreted by and for men, but when women reveal their spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges, one we haven’t seen enough of. Hildegard opens the door to a luminous new world.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows,” the voice of God reveals in Hildegard’s visions, recorded in her book, Liber Divinorum. “I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.”

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature, and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hildegard and the Feminine Divine

Don't miss the Fall 2012 issue of Namaste Insights, dedicated to Hildegard von Bingen and the Feminine Divine.

In this issue, I interview radical theologian and Hildegard scholar Matthew Fox, whose 1985 nonfiction book, The Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen made Hildegard's life and work accessible to a wide, popular English-speaking audience for the first time. A former Dominican monk, Fox was expelled from his order by Cardinal Ratzinger. Read the interview to hear what Matthew has to say about the irony of Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI being the one to finally canonize Hildegard and elevate her to Doctor of the Church.

Matthew's new book Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times will be published in October, as will my own new title, Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen/.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Illuminations Book Tour!

Schedule of events for ILLUMINATIONS: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (launch date 10/9/2012)

Here are the events already booked. More to be announced!

Tuesday, Oct 9—St. Paul
7:00 pm —Common Good Books launch event: 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105.

Wednesday, Oct 10—Edina
7:00 pm —Barnes & Noble Galleria. 3225 West 69th Street, Edina, MN 55435.

Thursday, Oct 11—Wayzata
7:00 pm — The Bookcase, 824 East Lake Street. Wayzata, MN 55391.

Monday, Oct 15—White Bear Lake
6:30 pm —White Bear Lake Public Library, 4698 Clark Ave., White Bear Lake, MN 55110.

Tuesday, Oct 16—Minneapolis
4:30 pm—University of Minnesota Bookstore, Coffman Union, University Ave.

Tuesday, Oct 16—St. Paul
7:30 pm —Carol Connolly Reading Series, University Club, Summit Ave.

Wednesday, Oct 17—St. Paul
7:00 pm—Subtext Books, 165 Western Ave. N.

Thursday, Oct 18—Mounds View
6:30 pm —Mounds View Public Library, 2576 County Rd 10, Mounds View, MN 55112

Saturday, Oct 20—Stillwater
2:00 pm—Valley Bookseller, 217 Main Street North, Stillwater MN 55082.

Sunday, Oct 21--Duluth
1:00 pm signing, 2:00 pm reading--The Bookstore at Fitger's, 600 East Superior St., Duluth MN 55802.

Monday, Oct 22--Excelsior
7:00 pm--318 Cafe, 318, Water St, Excelsior MN 55331.

Tuesday, Oct 23—Northfield
7:00 pm—Northfield Library, 210 Washington St., Northfield MN 55057

Wednesday, Oct 24 —Book Club, Golden Valley
7:00 pm —Private event.

Thursday, Oct 25—Podcast: Goddiscussion
9:00 pm Eastern Standard Time

Sunday, 19 August 2012

In Memory of the Pendle Witches


Here is a copy of the paper I read at the Capturing Witches Conference this weekend at Lancaster University. Academics, writers, and independent researchers from all over the world gathered to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Lancashire Witch Trials. 

This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials. Throughout the region people will be commemorating this solemn occasion. It’s my sincere hope that these events portray the accused witches not as some ghoulish sideshow but as real people who suffered and died unjustly because of other people’s ignorance. 

As a novelist, I wanted to devote my work to honouring these people, to raising them from the ashes. I wanted to give voice to the voiceless. An expat writer, I have lived in a number of different countries, but no place has touched me as deeply as the Pendle region in Lancashire, my home for the past ten years.

Evocation of place is my passion. The question I ask myself is what makes this place I’m in now unique, unlike any other place I’ve ever been? What song does the land sing? What stories does it have to tell? What ancestors and elders cry out from the depths of this earth? I am obsessed with local history and regional folklore, how these stories merge with the landscape itself. History is a fluid thing that, together with folklore and myth, continually shapes the present. As contemporary British storyteller Hugh Lupton has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in an evocative and meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition—the highest aspiration I have for my own writing.   

I arrived here knowing next to nothing about the Pendle Witches, but I soon became haunted by the images of witches I saw everywhere. In Pendle, witches are inescapable. They appear on pub signs, beer mats, bumper stickers, the sides of buildings, an entire fleet of double-decker buses. In the beginning I believed these witches on broomsticks belonged to the realm of fairy tale and ghost story. The truth, when I took the time to learn it, was far more disturbing.   

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he paid particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could even come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts described her: 

            She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had 
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast 
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man 
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no 
man escaped her, or her Furies. 

Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written to condemn her. This is the kind of heroine every novelist dreams of creating—except Mother Demdike was better than any fiction. She was real. 

I immersed myself in the local studies section of Clitheroe Library and read everything about the Pendle Witches I could get my hands on, including the novels already written about them. Robert O’Neill’s Mist over Pendle is my favorite work of fiction devoted to the Pendle Witch lore and yet, as delightful as O’Neill’s prose is, I was disappointed that he cast Mother Demdike as a sad and pathetic figure when the primary sources seemed to be pointing out that she was much, much more than that!

Then I turned to more recent research in witchcraft studies such as Robert Poole’s The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories and Jonathan Lumby’s The Lancashire Witch-Craze, which drew me into a mysterious lost world, where recusant Catholicism rubbed shoulders with popular folk magic. Emma Wilby’s watershed book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits helped me decipher Mother Demdike’s testimony in the trial documents, such as her first encounter with her spirit Tibb in the quarry in Goldshaw Booth outside Newchurch in Pendle, and place her firmly in her historical context as a cunning woman. This research allowed me to recast Mother Demdike, so often maligned in fiction and popular culture, as a tragic heroine. 

I had to tell Mother Demdike’s story in the first person. It was important to me to give her story back to her, let it unfold from her point of view, allowing her to shine forth like the firebrand she was. I yearned to spin her tale as best I could so my writing could be a mouthpiece for this mighty cunning woman that the authorities had worked so hard to silence. In the course of working on my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, Demdike, who I called Bess, became a true presence, a shining light in my life. An ancestor of my heart, if not my blood.

Bess Southerns’s life unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Her essence seemed to arise directly out of the wild Pennine moorland outside my door. Writing about her wasn’t a mere exercise of reading books, then typing sentences into my computer. To do justice to her story, I had to go out into the land—literally walk in her footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once her home. Now only the foundations remain. My horse’s livery yard is near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending Bess and the other Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow Bess’s voice to well up from the land. Her passion, her tale enveloped me. 

As I sought to uncover the bones of Bess’s story, I was drawn into a new world of mystery and magic. It was as though Pendle Hill had opened up like an enchanted mountain to reveal the treasures hidden within. Every stereotype I’d held of historical witches and cunning folk was dashed to pieces. 

Once in a place called Malkin Tower, there lived a widow, Bess Southerns, called Demdike. Matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested and imprisoned but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. 

Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—appeared to be Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in the trial documents, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Bess’s charm to cure a bewitched person, quoted in full in the trial transcripts as damning evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary: 

            What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,
Mine owne deare Sonne that’s naild to the Tree.

Bess herself would have been old enough to remember the Old Church, for the English Reformation didn’t really get under way until the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s short-lived son, who came to the throne when Bess was a teenager. She would have remembered the old ways of lighting candles before statues of the saints, of making offerings at holy wells, of processions around the fields to make them fertile—all practices that English Protestants condemned as pagan and un-Christian. 

Indeed Bess had the misfortune to live in a time and a place where Catholicism became conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, most of the enlightened men of the English Renaissance, thought that the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In 1645, in a pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.”

So were Bess and her family at Malkin Tower merely maligned and misunderstood practitioners of Catholic folk magic? The truth seems far more tangled. Bess and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits who appeared to them in the guise of beautiful young men—otherworldly lovers. Bess’s spirit was named Tibb, while Chattox’s was called Fancy. 

When Bess was in her fifties, walking past the quarry at Goldshaw Booth at sunset—called daylight gate in her dialect—a beautiful young man emerged from the stone pit, his hair golden and shining, his coat half black, half brown. He introduced himself to her as Tibb and promised to be her familiar spirit, her otherworldly companion who would be the power behind her every spell. 

Bess is the narrator of the first part of the book. The second part is narrated through the voice of her granddaughter Alizon, a teenager who showed every promise of becoming a cunning woman as mighty as her grandmother. But Alizon is two generations removed from the rich folk magic and the old ways of Mother Demdike’s youth. The child of a sterner Puritan age, she isn’t finding it so easy to come to terms with the legacy her grandmother wants to pass on to her. Will Alizon accept the call of power or will she refuse it? How will her decision effect her family’s fate? 

The crimes of which Elizabeth Southerns and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the trial, but for decades on end, no one dared to meddle with her. But in 1612 that all changed. On March 18, 1612, Alizon had a bitter verbal confrontation with John Law, a pedlar from Halifax in Yorkshire. A few minutes after the young woman told him off, John Law collapsed from a stroke. 

Both Alizon and the pedlar were convinced that her anger had struck him lame. Falling to her knees, Alizon burst into tears and begged his forgiveness before fleeing in terror. When witnesses reported Alizon to the authorities, magistrate Roger Nowell wasted no time in arresting her. Possibly through the use of leading questions, he browbeat this young woman into implicating her grandmother and also Chattox, Bess’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne. This was the beginning of the end that saw twelve people from the Pendle region imprisoned in the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle, chained to each other and to an iron ring on the floor. 

Not long after her arrest, Bess Southerns died in prison. Ever the wily cunning woman, she cheated the hangman before she could be brought to trial. Her family and friends experienced a different fate. 

Alizon, first to be arrested, was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a passionate tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell brought John Law, the pedlar she had supposedly lamed, before her. Filled with remorse to see the man’s suffering, she again begged his forgiveness. John Law, perhaps pitying the condemned young woman, replied that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to cure him. Alizon sadly told him that she lacked the powers to do so, but if her grandmother, Old Mother Demdike, had lived, she could and would have healed him and restored him to full health. The following day Alizon and the others were hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. 

Long after their demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow witches endure as part of the undying spirit of Pendle. Their legacy is woven into the land itself, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. This is their home, their seat of power, and they shall never be banished. By learning their true history, I have become an adopted daughter of their living landscape, one of many tellers who spin their neverending tale.   

From Daughters of the Witching Hill:
Let my children arise and come home to me.
Neither stick nor stake has the power to keep thee.
Open the gate wide. Step through the gate. Come, my children. Come home.