Working in harmony with Nature’s cycles has tremendous spiritual power. I experienced this in two profound ways when I was writing my memoir and first book, Book of Shadows. The process went easily for me because the pace and timing of writing paralleled the changing seasons: I began at the Winter Solstice, as the Sun was returning, made my greatest strides during the late spring and summer, completed my writing just after the harvest time of the Autumn Equinox, and edited during the winter months. The book was ready in March, just at the time of the Spring Equinox, the time of rebirth.
There was another cycle in motion at that time: I was in recovery from a life-threatening illness, and thus being reborn into life even as my book was being born. And yet at the same time, my mother was dying: she passed away just two months before it was published. Living through that cycle of life and death was one of the most painful times of my life, but the pain was eased by the deep wisdom of life’s rhythm.
I still miss my mother. But the timing of these enormous events taught me that life and death are intertwined, balancing one another, and so beneath the pain I have a sense of peace and awe. After my mother passed away, I kept waiting for some sign or visitation from her and finally, on the first night of my book tour, she came to me in a dream, hugged me, told me she loved me, and that I shouldn’t worry about her. There have been other, more remarkable signs since then, from both of my parents – signals that they are watching over me, and rejoice in my life.
The spirit survives, and many Witches have had experiences that convince them that your spirit returns to be reborn in this world, to experience and learn from other lifetimes. As Einstein proved, the energy of the Universe is constant: It cannot be destroyed. And though the physical form succumbs to the passage of time, the energy of someone’s life force cannot be destroyed. This cycle of life – birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, rest, and rebirth – is always present in the world around us. The Wheel is always turning and when you observe the seasons changing from one into the next, you also see that the cycle is full of mystery and divine magic that is as true for you as it is for the Earth.
Call it the Divine, the Goddess, the God, or the Tao, it is the force that spins the Wheel. Witches work with the energy of this ceaseless cycle, with the enchantment of life changing its form. This great and sacred magic is honored in the seasonal celebrations, the eight holy days that we call the Wheel of the Year. These sacred days are called Sabbats, from the Greek esbaton meaning “holy day,” and they are most often referred to by their Celtic names.
Four Sabbats celebrate the Earth’s seasons of change: Samhain (pronounced Sow’en and popularized as Halloween), Imbolc (which has survived as St. Brigid’s Day and Groundhog Day), Beltaine (or May Day, still celebrated in Scandinavia), and Lughnassadh (still celebrated in Ireland). And four celebrate solar events: Winter Solstice or Yule, Spring Equinox or Oestara, Summer Solstice or Litha, and the Autumn Equinox or Mabon. All of these holy days were appropriated by the Church and now the basis for the Christian calendar of worship. Sabbats occur approximately every six weeks, and are one of the reasons Wicca is such a joyful spirituality – there’s no time for the blues! Life is always changing, and Witches are always learning from and celebrating those changes.
Modern Sabbats contain elements of Welsh, Celtic, Nordic, Italian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and other ancient mythologies and religious mystery traditions. They also incorporate modern adaptations, recent and old folk practices, ancient invocations and modern language, and most important of all, the wisdom of Nature.
Though some would like to believe that our Sabbat rituals reflect a pure historical continuity, the fact is that many of our current practices and interpretations of the holidays are far more modern than ancient. And even the mythological motif of the dance between the Goddess and God that accompanies and explains the Wheel of the Year, though drawn from ancient myths, seems to be a recent adaptation. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is evidence of how vital Wicca is as a modern spirituality – addressing the perspective and needs of contemporary practitioners. So, let’s embrace the vitality of this remarkable spirituality, enjoy celebrating, and remember, we have the same teacher as our ancestors: Nature.
The Role of the Sabbats
Celebrating the Sabbats is one of your most powerful ways of connecting to the cycles of the Earth and the Sun. And when you get together with others to attune yourselves to these profound rhythms, you create a spiritual community with a shared reverence for Nature’s divinity and wisdom. Our forebears lived close to the Earth, so Her cadences affected every aspect of people’s lives, from their survival to their spirituality. And so when the community gathered, religious rituals organically reflected the natural world in which the people lived. The agricultural cycles, the Sun’s “movements,” and the responses of a community as it organized to live and work with these rhythms all gave rise to religious rites and metaphors.
Today, Wiccan Sabbats are ritual celebrations that help the community as a whole, and each of us as individuals, synchronize our minds, bodies, and
spirits to the tempo of the natural and divine world in which we live. But even when we come together as a community and celebrate with poetry, music, ritual, exuberance, and reverence, it’s not enough. We need to incorporate the Earth’s and the Sun’s innate spiritual wisdom into our daily lives.
There’s tremendous power in living according to these great cycles, and that power can change your life, and the culture around you. As you ritualize and are guided by the relationship of the Earth and Sun, you discover the rhythm and spiritual meaning of your own life.
Unfortunately, that’s often easier said than done. Most of us live in urban and suburban environments, cut off from Nature and Her seasons. The seasonal weather often seems more of an inconvenience than a source of spiritual enlightenment. But every once in a while, Nature asserts Herself so absolutely that even we modern creatures have to stop and pay attention to Her grace, power, and intelligence. It was wonderful, with spring just two weeks away, to watch the entire city of New York, and most of the Northeastern seaboard, grumpily grind to a halt as a huge snowstorm bore down on the East Coast, burying us in two feet of snow. For two days, winter reminded us of Her perfect purpose – the world grew quiet, the rushing about stopped, and we were wrapped in a snowy blanket of stillness and silence. As we should in winter, we put down our daily busy-ness and watched, stunned by beauty as the Earth turned inwards again, concealing Herself beneath a mantle of white.
You celebrate the Sabbats to recognize and learn from the Divine that resides in the world, and to express your gratitude. Sabbat rituals help you to see how divinity creates and transforms life – how it shape shifts – and why. Guided by the Sabbats, you begin to transform your own life. The Wheel reminds us that a Witch crafts her/himself not with a quick flick of a wand, but in a patient, certain, organic pace. As I already mentioned, you can’t tug on a growing plant to make it grow faster, but the Sabbats teach you that you can assure a fertile harvest.
Because I lived in New York City for so much of my life, and particularly my life as a Witch, I always had to work hard at paying attention to Nature’s presence and her wisdom. I had to walk blocks to get a clear view of the new Moon, and rush out into the first fallen snow before it was shoveled and plowed into giant dirt-covered piles on the sides of the city streets. I reveled in being able to celebrate Summer Solstice outside in Central Park after the longest Sun had set and the night sky was filled with fireflies, but could only do so in the safety of a group of fellow Witches. And how I wished I could dance naked beneath the full Moon on a warm summer’s night!
As closely as I could, I paid attention to the lessons in the tempo of the seasons, but my life, like most people’s, still required that I march to the beat of the society in which I lived. As an attorney, I had to be as productive during the darkest days of winter (when all I wanted to do was hibernate) as I was in the summertime. And when the breeze was warm and the Earth was exploding with life, I had to remain indoors working on tasks better suited to snowy days. Many people experience this same problem; as a Witch, the Sabbats provide deeply moving opportunities to re-attune your soul to the rhythm of the sacred.
It’s not easy to live the wisdom of the Sabbats when you reside in a world that’s largely disconnected from Nature, but it is possible – and it’s worth every effort to do so. When you are able to harness these phenomenal forces for your own life, you will find that you are able to grow, change, create, and release the outworn with greater ease and fulfillment.