OLD LIGHT DOESN'T LAST - Marcia McFee
As I set off for five weeks in Ireland this summer I had only two intentions: wandering and wondering. The very simplicity of this was unusual in my life, to say the least. The entrepreneurial life of a spiritual teacher is often not very… uh … spiritual. In fact, sometimes I think that I have spent more time planning, producing and promoting than actually getting to ponder my own spiritual journey. Teaching–not to mention embodying–living with intention, noticing with astonishment, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary and creating artful symbols that point to mysterious realities doesn’t actually happen without a lot of hard and relentless fecking work. (And if you need evidence that I’ve been in Ireland, there you “fecking” have it.)
Seven years ago I had set foot on the Emerald Isle for the first time. It was one of those bus tours with an agenda, and a time limit, for everything. Instead of opportunities to fall into brief yet never-to-be-repeated encounters with the people who actually inhabit the place, it was a lot of talking to my fellow Americans on the trip. It was a good introduction to the land of my ancestors, for which I’m grateful, but pretty early on in the ten day tour I vowed to myself that I would return one day alone, and for a significant chunk of time. That it took me seven years to get back should tell you something of the priority I have given to promises made to myself. But then perhaps this was the right moment after all. Major changes in my life, accompanied by a magnitude of grief I’ve never before known, were calling out for a rite of passage of sorts. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I sensed that the land of “thin places” would provide.
For this trip, I set for myself a long enough duration to allow for having no plans beyond the first stop. Again, set against the backdrop of my usual rhythm of life with deadlines and planning months in advance, this was nirvana–or would it be? Could I make the adjustment and let go of fear of missing out enough to slow down and let the journey unfold?
It took an unexpected epiphany for the answer to be yes.
My first stop–the planned one–was a series of stone-age burial passage tombs in County Meath just outside Dublin. I had been there for a rushed couple of hours in that bus tour seven years ago, but the experience marked me enough to consider this place the most beloved ritual spot I had ever visited. To a ritual scholar, this is like candy. I loved it so much that it inspired a tattoo I’ve been sporting ever since–a spiral, the most prominent symbol of these stone-age mounds that pre-date the Egyptian pyramids. I couldn’t wait to get back to this place, to trace the spirals with my fingers and “report back.” In a pre-trip moment of thinking I could not possibly take a trip just for myself, I had promised this correspondence to my website subscribers, so I knew there were people following me on social media. Shouldn’t I be sure to drum up some promotional excitement for the biz? So before going into the passage tomb, I dutifully and enthusiastically did a Facebook Live broadcast, pontificating on the human yearning for ritual, for symbol, for making sense of the cycles of life… blah, blah, blah.
Then it was my turn to go into the dark, cool womb of the mound’s interior. Only about 20 people fit in at one time to get a taste of what those early humanoid ancestors created as their ritual space. The light is simulated for daily visitors because only on the Winter Solstice does the tomb do what it was built to do. There’s a lottery to pick the 20 lucky people out of tens of thousands who will be present when the sunrise aligns perfectly with the opening above the doorway and the light shines all the way back through the passage into the place where the deceased were laid to rest. It is extraordinary evidence of the human yearning for a sign of light piercing the darkness, signs of rebirth and renewal of life, as the days then get longer. This was going to make a great follow-up broadcast after I exited, I thought, as I prepared to enter.
But once inside, rather than planning reflections for the post-exit broadcast that may or may not have been deeply meaningful; instead of me reflecting on the rituals of these ancient people, the ritual of entering and being on the inside claimed me.
I noticed something I hadn’t noticed the first time I was there–a fern frond unraveled from its spiral…. perhaps the natural inspiration for this ancient spiral art. It was etched on the rock-face tissue of this vagina-like opening. And in a visceral opening of my heart, it unfurled me, like something long dormant being reawakened.
I had made it a long time in my life without experiencing the death of someone very close to me. It has always made me wonder if, when I did, I would survive it. I’d always heard about the kind of pain that leaves you curled tight into a fetal position, unable to move on. Then grief did hit and there it was–the urge to wind up tight in the corner of a bathroom floor in the middle of the dark night. And then there in the dark womb-like tomb of Newgrange with its wound-up spirals and unfurled fern frond, I was reminded in an unarticulated gut-feeling kind of knowing, that the trips we take to the dark places are necessary if one hopes to open to life and light once again. Old light doesn’t last. As one who has studied rites of passage, I knew this, of course. But experiencing it… well… it changed me.
Then I was out again, birthed into the light of this nascent journey, my tears lubricating the passage. I kneeled in the grass outside the tomb not knowing, at that moment, how or why this outburst was happening. It didn’t matter. Feck whatever it meant and Feck Facebook Live. It just was. And it was mine.
In my field of Ritual Studies, we say that rituals themselves are first-order meaning-making. The reflecting upon the rituals that participants or scholars subsequently do is second-order meaning-making. You cannot substitute thinking for experiencing. Not that the two are dichotomous or estranged, but there is a difference between having an experience and interpreting it. The distance between those can be a split-second. But there was a difference, I believe, between having the experience in anticipation of telling the story and just having the experience. I can be so in love with the science of experience that I don’t let myself rest in experience’s womb.
As a direct result of that moment, the rest of my five weeks in Ireland became a cascade of moments of infant wonder. The wandering became effortless and the wondering less goal-oriented. Whether the events, places and people I encountered along the way were manifestations of the universe gifting me with the extraordinary or whether the state I allowed myself to be in simply allowed the ordinary to be more extraordinary, it doesn’t really matter. It was a time of allowing the heights and depths to work in me and on me. This doesn’t mean I didn’t do any reflecting upon the experience. I am a symbolist by nature and by training. We humans have evolved to be meaning-mongers; so to reflect on our experience is not something we can, or should, deny. I call it “metaphoraging” and we are all wired for it. But I was making sure to have my experiences as well as reflect on them–wandering and wondering.
In the days following that visit to the Newgrange passage tomb, a drought and a drone camera enabled discoveries of new, even larger, passage tombs that had not been seen in thousands of years. My host used to work at the passage tombs and so one mystical night we had an over the fences adventure to look at the new archeological digs sprouting up as a result of the once-in-a-lifetime findings. What, I wondered as I wandered those places, was lying undiscovered in my life, ready to be excavated?
I wandered over to the Wild Atlantic Way of the west coast of Ireland. There I stayed with a couple who had been married by a Celtic monk who lives on the Aran Islands–home of monks and monasteries for centuries. This couple had gifted me with an exchange of vulnerable life stories over lamplit home-cooked meals–one of the stories revealing that, like so many in Ireland, they had wanted ritual and symbol in their wedding but they hadn’t wanted the church. And, this being a second marriage, the church of their upbringing did not want them either. So compassion for human experience led this ex-Roman Catholic priest turned Celtic monk to bring his rich ritual to their lives. They put me in touch and I spent a day with him on his island talking about the deepest things we know and I watched him perform a joyful marriage ritual in the ruins of a tenth-century monastery with no roof. What capacity for joy do I have that is just waiting to blow the roof off my life?
I wandered down the coast and found myself in the home of a woman in the midst of life and relationship changes not unlike my own and within five minutes we were sharing things that only someone else in the midst of that shit can understand. She told me of her father’s recent wake in that very house, and the way they had lovingly, joyfully, woefully held vigil with his body laid out on that very kitchen table where we sat drinking tea. It was a table of transition–her father’s, her family’s, and now ours as we talked of the “what’s next” of our lives. Later, we were joined by one of her best friends, the cave-diver from Ireland who had just returned from helping save those boys trapped in the cave in Thailand. You meet all sorts. The kitchen table again became the place of bearing witness to the story of the miracle of life. How will I open the doors of my home wider so my own kitchen table can become a place of story, witness, and transformation?
I wandered to one of the sites of a natural well named for St. Brigid, a saint who may be just as famous to the Irish as Patrick. While there I began a conversation with the men who were mending the failing concrete walls around the perimeter. Because I lingered a long time at the well, pilgrims came and went, walking five times around the shrine as the sign suggested, or scooping out water to take home and use all year long for blessing people and things. At a lull in the visitors, the workmen dipped their buckets in the well so they would have water to make the concrete. “Gonna be the holiest concrete in County Clare,” he said with a laugh and I winked that his secret was safe with me. Indeed, the place between the ordinary and extraordinary is very thin. How might the sacred be closer to me than I know?
There are many of other metaphorizing-madness-giving-way-to-bliss moments I could write about here because these magical moments just kept coming for five weeks. The Tidy Towns gardener who had transformed a blighted urban corner into blooming bliss that brought neighbors together, the courageous Northern Ireland peace builders and poets who revealed to me the power of risking confessional vulnerability even and especially in the face of revenge-worthy pain, the roller derby girls who are bad-ass and giggly at the same time, and the ukulele band that is more like church than church. But I’ll finish with this.
I wanted to mark my journey with a tattoo. Knowing that the journey often continues as an evolution rather than a decisive breach, I decided to build on the image I already bore. In honor of my epiphany at the Newgrange burial passage tomb five weeks earlier, I went to get my existing spiral tattoo adapted into an unfurling fern frond spiral. As the tattoo artist began her work on the fern spiral, she asked about the symbolism.
I told her the story.
Her name was Charlotte.
She was purple-hair pretty and young, though already with years of tattoo experience having been mentored by the shop’s owner who was, Charlotte proudly told me, the first woman tattooist in Ireland. Already I felt my choice in tattoo shops was as mystically right on as the rest of my journey had been. And then, this:
She listened to my tale, of a seven-years-in-the-making pilgrimage, the pain in the background, the wandering, the underground rite of passage, the leaving of an old light and emerging into a new one, and the wonder.
She paused, needle point ready to pierce my skin.
And then she said, “Oh, Newgrange. I should tell you about the time I won the lottery and got to be in that tomb at sunrise of the Winter Solstice. It changed me.”
Marcia McFee is a ritual artist and professor. Her background in performing arts collided with degrees in theology and ritual studies and what popped out was someone insatiably curious about how and why we humans create meaning (www.godeeporgohome.org). She is the creator and visionary of the Worship Design Studio (www.worshipdesignstudio.com/wds) and author of three books, including Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship for Unforgettable Messages.