Creating Order in a Chaotic Time: Finding Connection Through the Sacred Center

COVID-19. It has upended and ended lives. Losing jobs, losing loved ones, losing our minds.  I have been fortunate thus far to not have lost anyone I know, and I am I still employed. But that third thing. . .that one had been slipping away from me. My existing anxiety and depression have been ratcheted up to unseen heights by the existential dread of a world in fear, in stasis, in exhaustion, in chaos. A corrupt President fans the flames of a global health crisis into a political firestorm of lies, manipulation, and greed. My brain tells me: What’s it all for? Why get up in the morning? Why get out of bed? I have a job but not much work to do. I am loved and not alone yet desperately yearn for those seen only as words and faces on screens. My moods swing wildly with good hours and bad hours; emotions howling through my body and brain as the winds literal and metaphorical howl outside my window. And I know I am not alone in feeling these feelings. For so many of us, life has become worry, fear, paranoia, discomfort, isolation, boredom, overwork, no work–how can we make sense of what is happening? How can we connect with one another in authentic and meaningful ways when we must stay at home or stand at least six feet apart? How can we find order from this chaos?

Who are we? From whence do we come? What is the story of our people?

Not hard…

A great misty cloud had gathered together in the void

Swirling and spiraling; spiraling and swirling

Drawing ever-in upon itself.

At its center radiance shone forth

And drove outward the surrounding cloud

Gathering the waters together here below.

And so it was that the stuff of creation drew apart

To form the Fire Above

And the Waters Below.

The Solar Fire warmed the Cauldron of Creation

And stroked upon its waters with thunderbolts

Fire Well Tree

Fire, Well, and Tree on my home shrine

And begat upon it Life.

And the Life begat the Creatures

And the Creatures begat the Ancestors

And the Ancestors begat Us– the Living People.

Upright like you, Great Tree

We bear upon us the mark of Creation

Then, now, and for all time.

Rooted in the ancestral waters of the World Below,

Spanning this Middle-World of form

And reaching ever-upward to embrace the Fire above.[1]

These words were written by my dear friend and spiritual mentor the late Eric Canali, better known as Earrach of Pittsburgh. Earrach grew up on the suburban edges of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania playing in the woods and springs behind his parents’ house. His Druid name “Earrach,” spelled E-A-R-R-A-C-H, itself means “spring,” in Gaelic. As he writes in an essay he calls “The Yearning,”

When I was a boy, young as perhaps only five or six, I had begun playing in a stream that seeped down through the woods covering the hillside behind my house. That little stream winds far back into my earliest memories. I’ve always felt especially fortunate that I had it there to visit and explore, and also for the most wonderful blessing of all: yes, I had at my access the spring from which it flowed. . . .As I grew older, the richness of the landscape around my childhood home became even more valuable to me. In my teens the mystical, poetic part of me that was developing came to further rely on it. Through wave after wave of discovery, inspiration, and heartbreak it remained the palette upon which I mixed the ever-changing colors of my vision of the world. [2]

This poetic-minded lover of nature found his way to astronomy and later to Druidry, specifically a form of NeoPagan Druidry that came to be called Ár nDraíocht Féin or “Our Own Druidry,” more commonly referred to by the acronym ADF. In reaction to some of the other types of NeoPaganism flourishing in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, ADF’s founder grounded ADF in scholarship and gave it a guiding mission of performing public ritual. To those ends he designed a historically-inspired ritual format to be used by the fledgling Druid congregations he called “Groves.” I first attended a ritual at Earrach’s Sassafras Grove in 1997, and celebrating the Sabbats, or eight High Days of the NeoPagan Wheel of the Year, whenever I could with Earrach and Sassafras became part of my personal practice even as I continued to identify as a Witch to those I was also getting to know in the greater Pittsburgh Pagan Community.

And that’s how found myself co-leading a Druid rite as part of a series of “Unity Rituals” meant to bring that community together even while celebrating its differences. I had been to some Sassafras rituals and had paid attention, so they made me High Priestess along with a High Priest who had actually been the first person to introduce me to Sassafras and to Earrach. But he bowed out early in the planning process, and I ended up co-officiating with someone who knew less about Druidry than I did. Since I was now “the expert,” I realized I had to turn to the real expert, and that meant Earrach. Specifically I needed to understand this whole “Fire, Well, and Tree thing.”

You see, most NeoPagan rituals share the feature of creating sacred space during the worship ceremony. We do this for reasons both theological and practical, the practical being that Wicca, from which modern Paganism grew, had been a secretive religion, primarily practiced in living rooms and backyards, and there weren’t enough NeoPagans in general, let alone those who wanted to hold rituals for the public, to fund and sustain a public place of worship. The theological part stems from Masonry and Western Ceremonial Magic, which heavily influenced Gerald Gardner, the founder of what we know as Wicca today. In magic-heavy practices during which one can become quite vulnerable, practitioners have found it prudent to protect themselves by “casting a circle.” In Wicca we draw this circle with a knife, literally cutting away our own little pocket reality; “a time that is not a time, a place that is not a place.”

In wanting to clear away the Judeo-Christian magical “baggage” of Wicca’s roots, ADF’s founder sought to find a more authentically Pagan way of creating sacred space.  Thus he hit upon what we call today the ritual step of “Recreating the Cosmos.” Many pre-Christian Indo-European cultures, and others besides, share the belief that the ordered universe was created out of chaos at a sacred center.  By putting ourselves in tune with that sacred center, we too can form order out of chaos—we can create a sacred space from the profane, ordinary world around us.  We also consecrate the time of the ritual by connecting it with this original sacred act performed by gods or heroic ancestors (depending on the culture) in a mythic, sacred time.  In this ritual model, each action we perform in the first part of the ritual is a step on the journey from a profane to a sacred space and time.  As philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliad so eloquently describes this journey in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return:

The road is arduous, fraught with perils, because it is, in fact, a rite of passage from the profane to the sacred, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity, from death to life, from man to the divinity.  Attaining the center is equivalent to a consecration, an initiation; yesterday’s profane and illusory existence gives place to a new, to a life that is real, enduring, and effective (18).[3]

As Earrach explained to me as I sought his aid in trying to lead that Druid Unity Ritual, in ADF practice, we most commonly imagine the Center as the World Tree growing as an axis mundi or “world axis.” The Tree’s roots are embedded in the Waters below and its leaves embrace the Fires above—the Waters and Fires being the essential elements of creation.  The Tree connects the Upperworld of Fire, the Underworld of Water, and the Middle Realm of Earth—our world.  We make invocations to the Fire, Well and Tree and offerings to representations of each, and through will, or magic, we turn the symbols into living embodiments. Sanctity radiates out from this sacred center, much as the heat of a campfire radiates out to warm those sitting around it. Through this sacred canter, we connect to all sacred centers similarly established throughout space and time. We often call this place “The Crossroads of Creation.”

Land beneath me, sky above me, land about me, fire within.

My blood is the waters of the Earth, those which flow and nourish.

My mind is the fires of the Heavens, those which burn bright and clear.

My spine is the great tree that grows between the two, uniting all worlds within the embrace of its roots and branches.

Standing at the center, as the center, the very crossroads of creation.

So be it. [4]

The writer, magician, and ritualist Nicole Egelhoff wrote these words to establish sacred space and time in her daily devotions. Like in Earrach’s creation myth, she compares the human spine to the World Tree, but she goes a step further in hallowing herself as the Well, Fire, and Tree. I’ve used this in rituals with Nicole over some years now, and when I set up an altar at my partner’s place and reestablished my daily practice when the stay-at-home order in my county began, I found those words coming to my mind more and more often. Orienting and consecrating myself as the axis mundi of The Cosmos helped me to reflect on the fact that I am the axis of my own cosmos, a thought that brought me profound peace in the midst of the COVID-19-induced anxiety and fear. As above, so below, right. Macrocosm and microcosm. If gods and heroes created cosmic order from cosmic chaos as Eliade would say in illo tempore,  or “in that time,”  I can create order from the chaos around me in this time.

So when tidying the apartment, pulling weeds and cutting back dead growth in my garden, folding laundry, putting away dishes, clearing out my email inbox, or organizing a closet or drawer I seek to stay mindful of the power of these actions on my mental and physical well-being. When I’m particularly focused, I’ll find myself repeating the mantra, “chaos from cosmos” in my head as I do these tasks, knowing that they are important to perform in and of themselves but are also part of the greater whole of putting myself in order. I see many manifestations of this concept in the actions of other during the chaos of this pandemic such as the pharmacy technicians that ensure we get our meds refilled, the sanitation workers who keep our trash and recyclables from piling up, the public health educators and policy makers who provide knowledge and guidance to keep us safe, and the health care providers helping to restore and ensure our health. I see it in those who are sewing masks, learning to homeschool their children, putting on clothes to telework, and in those who are simply managing to get out of bed in the morning. Each adaptation, each regulation, each masking and handwashing become sacred acts of recreating the cosmos of our society and our lives.

We can similarly use the concept of the Sacred Center as a tool to combat the isolation, disconnection, and loneliness we are experiencing during this time. By establishing ourselves at the Sacred Center, we can connect to all Sacred Centers. People in far flung parts of the globe, each connecting themselves to the Sacred Center, can meet up with one another at the Crossroads of Creation, a place that is, as Eliade says, “real, enduring, and effective.” Whether you experience this as a psychological phenomenon, a spiritual phenomenon, or both, this technique brings those engaging in it together a much greater sense of being in one another’s presence than interacting through technology alone. We can use this technique without the technology as well. The Crossroads of Creation are both a sacred place and a sacred time. If each member of your group intentionally meets at the Sacred Center together for a specific purpose, they can connect at the same sacred time even if they are connecting at different temporal times, allowing the group to work together even if physically alone.

I urge you to give these techniques a try. A simple way to begin is by engaging in the well-known meditative practice of imagining yourself as a tree, with roots leading down into the Well below and branches reaching up to touch the Fire above, and connecting yourself to these cosmic elements. Allow the Waters and Fire to combine within you and relish that moment of creation. Then let the Waters recede back into the Earth and the Fire radiate back out into space, but notice how you have been changed by the experience.

We stand now in the Middle World, with the beauty of the Earth, the land, sea, and sky, about us.

Oh mighty World Tree, sacred to those who came before us, you stand at the center of all creation—the crossroads of time and space.  Proudly you stand as we stand, connecting us, this time and this place to all that has come before and all that will ever become.

Sacred Tree:  We honor you!

 The roots of the Tree delve deep, through layers of earth and layers of time, to touch the primordial Waters below. As we spring from the Ancestors, so do all waters spring from you—flowing forth to fill the sacred springs, rushing rivers, and languid lakes.  The oceans that sustain us and the rains that nourish us find their source in you—the Well of memory and inspiration.

 Sacred Well:  We honor you!

The branches of the Tree grow skyward, through layers of clouds and vastness of space, to touch the celestial Fire above. As we bear the divine spark within us, so do all fires burn with your sanctity—blazing brightly to warm our homes, cook our food, and gather the folk.  The fires that light our shrines and spirit our offerings find their source in you—the Fire of piety and creation.

Sacred Fire:  We honor you!

 Sanctified we stand at the Center of the World
Expanded below and above
Now we prepare to do our work
With strength and passion, and love.

So be it!

[1] Earrach of Pittsburgh. “The Creation Myth,” 1995. The Book of Sassafras (blog), Accessed on 3 May 2020: https://thebookofsassafras.blogspot.com/p/creation-myth-in-neo-druidic-liturgy.html

[2] Earrach of Pittsbugh. “The Yearning,” 3 March 2011. The Book of Sassafras (blog), Accessed on 3 May 2020: https://thebookofsassafras.blogspot.com/search?q=the+yearning

[3] Eliade, Mircea.  The Myth of Eternal Return.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1991.

[4] Nicole Egelhoff. Personal communication. April 17, 2020.

Libation to Aphrodite

During this season of romance, I honor the goddess Aphrodite in her aspects of goddess of beauty, happiness, love, seduction, and sex. I initially wrote these invocations for an Aphrodite-themed May rite with Sassafras Grove in Pittsburgh in 2007, and I have used them in blessing rites, libations, and a second May rite since, including the libation I celebrated earlier this week. As I realized that I have not shared them here before, I decided to share them now along with some photos from my libation.

May abundant blessings of Aphrodite be upon you and yours! I sure am grateful this year for the ways she has blessed me.

Fivefold Invocation to Aphrodite

Aspect: Beauty
Aphrodite Morpho, Aphrodite the Shapely
Gorgeous Goddess, pure vision of loveliness, perfect in form
You inspire us with the power of beauty
Hearts uplifted by a heavenly voice, a graceful dance, a stunning work of art
Our breath catches, stomachs flutter when we spy a mortal blessed by your charms
You enrich our lives with the glory of our changing Seasons,
Crystalline ice giving way to white-rushing streams,
Brilliant hues of flowers and leaves
And the many shades of green that dress the land
Aphrodite Morpho, Beautiful Aphrodite. . .
Hail and Welcome!

Aspect: Happiness
Aphrodite Doritis, Aphrodite the Bountiful
Laughing Goddess, delighting in festivity
You fill our hearts with joy, our souls brim with mirth
Our cares forgotten in feasting, dance, and song
You help us to share with one another as our inhibitions fall
Forming bonds of friendship that last a lifetime
We rejuvenate our spirits through your blessings of relaxation and pleasure
Aphrodite Doritis, Goddess of Happiness. . .
Hail and Welcome!

Aspect: Love
Aphrodite Ourania, Aphrodite of the Heavens
Golden Goddess, shining above
Illuming our hearts with the pure light of love
You intoxicate us with your strange elixir of
Hope, terror, and joy as we pine for
One word, one glance, one touch from the beloved.
When taken by your fever we can know no remedy
Except fulfillment of desire
Aphrodite Ourania, Goddess of Love. . .
Hail and Welcome!

Aspect: Seduction
Aphrodite Symmachia, Aphrodite our Ally
Sly Goddess, assisting in the art of seduction
Shy, coy; stolen glances, hearts racing at the slightest touch
You help us find witty words, an enticing gift,
A secret meeting place, hidden under the cover of night.
The rush of anticipation, crumbling resistance, sweet surrender.
Aphrodite Symmachia, Our Ally in Seduction. . .
Hail and Welcome!

Aspect: Sex
Aphrodite Praxis, Aphrodite of Action
Lusty Goddess, enflaming our passions, urging us on
The drive, the need; hearts pounding, vision blurred,
Blood rising, rising, rising. . .
Wetness, sweetness, writhing, writhing, writhing. . .
You bring us to union, finding sweet fulfillment
In a lover’s embrace for a night or a lifetime
For procreation or pleasure
Aphrodite Praxis, Goddess of Sex. . .
Hail and Welcome!

 

Fourth Day of Yule: Feast of Fools/Lord of Misrule

On this fourth day of Yule we call to the Lord of Misrule

You who preside over the pastimes of this festive season.

During this sacred time of merriment and joy

The usual order turns upside down
As Saturn is unbound and Dionysos roams the land.

Laughter reigns as we set work aside in favor games and gatherings,

Making new memories and in jokes with family and friends.

Lord of Misrule, We honor you!

Third Day of Yule: The Sun

On this third day of Yule we call out to the Sun,  

Newly reborn with the dawn of the day.

Though darkness still reigns in our northern hemisphere,

We rejoice in the knowledge that nights now grow shorter

And delight in daylight’s dance upon the snow-covered land.

Evergreen trees bedecked with bulbs and twinkling memories remind us of life’s resilience

While candles flicker and Yule logs glow to strengthen our striving star
Reborn Sun, we honor you!

Voice Your Values: VOTE

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I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States of America, and my company’s Pittsburgh Office is two miles away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in an adjacent neighborhood.  I woke up from a nap in my home in a further away Pittsburgh neighborhood that Saturday afternoon to a text from the director of my office alerting us to the active shooter situation in Squirrel Hill. Many of my colleagues live and worship there, and I was worried for them as I am sure we all were.  None of our number were among the dead and wounded, but soon I would hear a good work friend’s husband’s voice on NPR talking about the shooting, the same voice I have heard at parties and events, including their annual Hanukkah party, over many years. That night at the 22nd Annual Halloween party thrown by a friend who grew up in Squirrel Hill and whose family still lives there, I learned from another friend that her husband’s friend’s father had been killed there that day.  We carried on the tradition even as we comforted one another and marveled at how so very close to home tragedy had come to us.

I was napping that day because I was sick, and I hadn’t been able to attend any of the vigils or protests that had been held in Pittsburgh–until today.  I heard a Jewish coworker of mine, a woman I had hugged in solidarity and disbelief on November 9, 2016, talking in the bathroom about going to a vigil on the lawn of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. I made the spur of the moment decision to walk the two blocks to “Pitt Together:  Stronger Than Hate” and found great comfort in the solidarity of the crowd, the music of the students, and the words of the speakers.

The words that touched me most deeply were from Rabbi Daniel Schiff of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.  He remarked about the T-shirts so many were wearing that included what he said was usually erroneously called the “Star of David.”  He said the proper name was the “Magen David,” or “Shield of David,” and that we ourselves should be a shield for those who need us.

Voice Your Values--Vote

Let your vote be a shield.

These are terrifying times.  But they are much scarier for some of us than for others.  The outcome of this election may not further embolden those who would kill you as you practice your religion.  It may not empower our federal government to erase you as a human being because of your gender identity or encourage police officers to shoot you first and ask questions never because you have dark skin. Your employer-based health insurance may continue to cover you just as it always has regardless of your medical history, and you may not worry about seeking assistance for your children through the taxes you pay for fear you will be torn from them. But many of us rightly do fear these things.  So to expound upon Rabbi Schiff’s charge to us today, I charge us all make our votes be a shield for those who are most vulnerable, who are in most need of protection.  Be awake to our common humanity, take the small amount of time out of your day, and give voice to your values.  On November 6, 2018:  VOTE; because we truly are stronger together.

Crocuses in the Snow

Spring began today in the Northern Hemisphere at 12:15 PM EDT.  I had met a friend for lunch at noon, making the 15 minute walk from my office in a chill winter’s rain. By the time we left the restaurant an hour later, it had begun to snow; fat, fluffy flakes falling up the awakening Earth.

Countless coworkers in the hallways and contacts on Facebook bemoaned the weather, complaining that it should no longer be snowing now that it is spring.  They were wrong, of course.  Thirty degree temps and billowing snow storms are exactly what spring weather looks like in the northern half of North America, especially in early spring.  It can also look like 80 degrees with blazing sunshine, and anything in-between.

That’s what the Spring Equinox, Ostara, whatever you call it, is all about.  We celebrate this liminal time, of perfect sunny days leading into blizzard conditions, the chaotic tug of war between the lion and the lamb.  Spring is crocuses in the snow.  New life emerges with the lengthening days, and it holds on no matter what the day’s weather may bring, because warmer days are on their way. Today I honor the tenacity of the crocus and ask for its hearty blessings to stand fast through what comes and await better days.

Crocuses in the snow by me

“Crocuses in the Snow” (photo taken 3/20/2018 by the author)

Brighid Aspect Healing Prayer Beads

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Since early in its history, my local ADF Grove, Sassafras Grove in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, has been working with nine aspects of their patron goddess Brighid at Imbolc (what they typically call “Brigantia”).  They honor and work with one aspect each day leading up to their Brigantia rite and share this work with the greater community so others can participate if they wish.

I have been somewhat successful in creating prayers and prayer beads for various purposes, and last summer a friend reached out to commission a set of Brighid healing beads from me for a loved one facing a health crisis.  I turned to the nine aspects for inspiration, and I created these prayers to go with the beads.  As today is Healing Day in the Brighid “Novena,” I thought it might be appropriate to share them here in case others may find them useful as well.

Bright Blessings of Brighid,

Diane “Emerald” Bronowicz

Brighid Watertaking framed

Healing Waters (photo by the author)

Midwife

Hail to you, Brighid the Midwife!
Careful tender of mother and child.
You lead ready souls back into our world,
Helping the new-born draw their first breaths.
May your skillful hands soothe my fears.
May your knowing mind guide me back to health.
Brighid, Goddess of Midwifery, I honor you.

Foster Mother

Hail to you, Brighid the Foster Mother!
Loving nurturer to those in your care.
You teach the children their ancestral ways,
Strengthening bonds of kith and of kin.
May your wisdom guide me to fulfill my potential.
May your example help me to care for myself.
Brighid, Goddess of Fosterage, I honor you.

Initiator

Hail to you, Brighid the Initiator!
Discerning guide through life’s dark pathways.
You bring the worthy to the heart of the flame,
Immersing them down in the depths of the mystery.
May your key unlock the secrets of my soul.
May your magic renew me and give me new life.
Brighid, Goddess of Initiation, I honor you.

Blacksmith

Hail to you, Brighid the Blacksmith!
Powerful artist of iron and steel.
You temper and shape us to bring out our lustre,
Transforming brittle weakness to supple strength.
May your work give me resilience to recover my vigor.
May you create in me a lasting masterpiece.
Brighid, Goddess of Smithcraft, I honor you.

Poet

Hail to you, Brighid the Poet!
Eloquent crafter of music and words.
You move our souls with your compelling phrases,
Weaving imagery and verse into spellbinding speech.
May the power of your poetry renew my persistence.
May the beauty of your song inspire my strength.
Brighid, Goddess of Poetry, I honor you.

Warrior

Hail to you, Brighid the Warrior!
Stalwart guardian of the vulnerable.
You shield us from the harshness of the world,
Defending us as you teach us to defend ourselves.
May your fierceness spark the courage within me.
May your power feed my will to fight.
Brighid, Goddess of Warriors, I honor you.

Mistress of Sacred Wells

Hail to you, Brighid of the Sacred Wells!
Keeper of ancient and holy places.
Your waters bestow deep wisdom of the land,
Connecting us to ancestral memory.
May your waters refresh and replenish my spirit.
May your magic grant me miracles of healing.
Brighid, Goddess of Sacred Wells, I honor you!

Hearthtender

Hail to you, Brighid the Hearthtender!
Protectress of the living flame.
You warm us through the uncertain night;
Illuminating truths of the realm divine.
May your fires burn away all sickness and fear.
May I bask in your restorative light.
Brighid Goddess of the Hearth, I honor you!

Healer

Hail to you, Brighid the Healer!
Learned master of prevention and cure.
You quickly discern by your insight and knowledge,
Curing and mending our illness and hurts.
May your healing powers strengthen my physical self.
May your remedies return me to perfect health.
Brighid, Goddess of Healing, I honor you.

Winter Solstice Night

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On this second night of Yule we call out in darkness.

As the Sun stops descending in the southern sky

And the Earth turns its northern face away from its rays,

We stand in the silent stillness of the Winter Solstice;

Taking time away from the holiday bustle to contemplate

The miracle of our planet’s life-sustaining tilt

And the majesty of the changing seasons.

Winter Solstice Night, we honor you.

Mothers’ Night Prayer

I finished up this prayer last night just in time for Mothers’ Night.

On this first night of Yule we call to the Mothers;
Those who bore, loved, and raised us and all those who came before;
Those women of our Ancestral lines who watch over us still;
The Three Sister Rivers who bring life to this land we call “home;”
And the Three Sisters of Fate who weave the threads of our lives into our family tapestry.
At the Yuletide we carry on the sacred and secular traditions you handed down,
Bringing peace, warmth, and cheer into this darkest time of year.
Great Mothers: We honor you!