First of May (though you wouldn’t know it from the dull, cold grey outside). Most cultures, ancient and modern, have some sort of Springtime/rebirth holiday today: Beltane, Mayday, Walpurgis Night. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans each had their variants, too, all with much the same general intent: As agricultural societies, they wanted a good growing season, safe livestock, and general fertility. Making ritual offerings to any nature spirits and/or nature goddesses seen as potentially active in the area does make a great deal of practical sense.
I remember the ornate BVM crowning ceremonies from my days in Catholic school, almost certainly descended from those same fertility rituals (though of course I had no way of knowing this at the time). A statue of Mary, roughly the same size as one you’d find in some families’ front lawns (i.e. the famous ‘Bathtub Madonna’, sans bathtub) was placed on a litter. The statue and litter were garlanded with flowers, and ‘hidden’ inside the school while we adorably precious little Catholic children were forcibly marched outside onto the church steps to sing some adorably precious little Catholic songs.
Prayers were said. A priest gave a sermon. Nuns were dispatched to police the crowd of children (who of course tended to get unruly when exposed to sunlight during school hours). Eventually, it was deemed time and four of the older boys would carry the BVM out to us astride her litter. Additional flowers were thrown, the appropriate number of Hail Marys were recited, and the statue was finally ‘crowned’ with a garland of flowers by one of the younger, prettier girls.
So yes… pagan rituals were alive and well in the blue-collar parts of Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1976 (give or take). Just in case any of you were wondering.
But even at the age of 9 or 10, I knew well enough not to mention that she had visited me once, when I was two years old.
I know that I was two because I remember the house and room exactly, and we only lived there a year or so (the building was Condemned so we had to move). This would place the timing at late 1969-1970. In any case, I was young enough that I was still sleeping in a crib. The morning sun had woken me, my mother and everyone else in the house still asleep. I heard a woman’s voice, calling my name in a sing-songy tone. She sounded far away. I didn’t so much as ‘see’ her with my eyes but did get the distinct, strong impression that a young-but-motherly woman, beautiful, surrounded by light was in the room with me. The features were indistinct (as in ‘no distinct face was presented to me’), but the image was strong. An almost cliché sense of ‘being safe’ came upon me. I was looked after. I was protected. And then she was gone.
At the time I had no idea who she was: We weren’t a weekly church-going family: So it wasn’t until a few months later, when I saw a statue of Mary in a church for the first time, that I somehow recognized the woman. (And yes, even at three years old, I kind of knew that this was something best kept to myself).
Fast forward to May 1st, 1996: The little Catholic boy has by now long since mutated into an engineer in his late 20s. He’s sitting alone in a candlelit room in front of the coffee table he’s chosen to use as a makeshift ‘altar’. Above this is hung a tapestry bought at a Tibetan store (chosen to represent ‘the gateway’). Even though he still only half believes what he’s up to, he’s still trembling a little as he puts drops of oil on the four corners of the altar, four more drops of oil on the four corners of the tapestry… And lights a candle.
“Dedicate” he says. Lights the candle. “Activate.” He sits there and meditates as best he can until midnight passes, then has to sleep (it was a work night). Once in bed, he goes to sleep thinking “What have I done? This is fucking nuts”. But it was official: He’d just improvised a little ritual to formally announce himself to… something. As a ‘witch’ of some kind. (He didn’t even know for certain what word to use. Still doesn’t, actually).
And he had chosen this of all days to do it. Quite on purpose.
It took him awhile to get here: He’d ‘come out’ as an atheist one Ash Wednesday when he was 17– back when that was still a very hard and potentially socially-damaging thing to do (especially while still attending a Catholic school). Some Nietzsche (he was young). He stumbled onto Joseph Campbell a few weeks before he graduated college, thanks to Bill Moyers. Read (and felt he understood) some Campbell, then read (and barely understood) some Jung. Stumbled onto a Certain zen book that was trendy at the time (but still appealing) and tried to be Buddhist for awhile. Not really a ‘Joiner’, so back to Jung. Jung led to I Ching. I Ching –along with a sudden coincidental stream of ‘witchy’ women showing up in his life, as either lovers or friends– led to tarot. Tarot led to candle-magick: This of course reminded him of his altar boy days. Then, this being the 1990s, he’d stumbled onto and had surprising early successes with sigils: And by then, knew it/there was… ‘Something’. That he wanted to do. That he had always wanted to do. And in some ways, always had been.
And so (nearly two decades after the last of those Coronations of Mary) here he was, lighting a candle in the dark. Wondering if anything would ever answer.
Of course, he had dreams that night.
That was two decades (and two moves) ago, to the day. Here I sit at that very same altar (it doubles as an asian-style desk), beneath that very same tapestry, with a little candle burning next to me. Twenty years of books and other research later. Twenty years of actual ‘experiments’ and ‘experiences’, both good and bad, later. I’ve come to ‘know’ (or at least believe) many things that I would have found utterly ridiculous back then. (And vice versa, for that matter).
And yet: I still just barely have a mental framework with which to process something that happened to me when I was two years old. If anything, it’s more obscure: I by now ‘know’ that BVM is actually just one tip of an ancient, submerged iceberg. One both very deep and very old. So… What? Why?
I still don’t know. Maybe I never will.
Here’s to the next two decades. I should probably try and document them better than the previous two.