This is a hard post to write. I am good with words, not so good with feelings. I am good with doing, with deeds and words, but honestly less skilled at what my old martial arts sensei would have called “being”. This is going to be a problem with this post because what I want to share is about what being heathen means, what it gives to us, what it is we gain by coming together.
I am not going to indulge in another round of defending group practice against those who insist that any description of the benefits of group or community practice is an attack on solo practitioners. The argument is about as valid as saying that any description of enjoyment of eating steak is an attack on the eating of cheesecake. This is about something you can experience in good group practice, take it as that, or leave it.
We came together at Zona’s, and she and her husband were worried as it was their biggest ever ritual. It is common for Heathens to worry that somehow their hosting will not be up to the standards of the fine events they have guested at. The amazing thing is that everyone in the community generally feels the exact same, leaving you to wonder what sort of Heathen blinders we have on that are so easily impressed by the offerings of others, and so blind to the worth of our own. As problems go, that one is amusing more than distressing, and probably says something important about the worth of our folk as we really are quicker to see the worth in the offerings of others rather than our own.
Ranging in age from two to well over two-score, with a sprinkling of teens in between, we really were a cross section of the community. Families and singles, old and young, gender mixed, and mixed by about any other axis you wish to subdivide humanity on; but really just the true face of our community, just people.
One of our community has just suffered a deep and personal loss. Death come without warning to a friend deeply loved, and a pillar of her world. Others in the community were dealing with other losses, or great changes and challenges. We are a proud people, and we face our challenges squarely, asking quarter or aid from none. The virtues of Heathenry cause us to embrace our challenges as opportunities to establish our worth, they instill in us a fierce independence, but it is not the whole of heathenry; far from it.
It is said the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf. So to is it with tribes, kindreds, and families. We are a community of strong and worthy individuals, but when we come together the truth becomes obvious, that the whole is rather more than the sum of its parts. The community is not simply a collective term to describe those of us standing around the altar passing the horn to bid goodbye to Old Man Winter, and welcome blessed Easter, whose first step upon the land heralds the coming of spring and the renewal of life. The community is a living thing, a powerful thing, and place, a frithstead where you may do what you would never dare elsewhere.
I have heard the criticism from both the Abrahamatic faiths and the ritual magicians of other more esoteric traditions that all Heathens do is feast and stand around drinking. That would be a bit like saying that all engineers do is sit in front of the computer all day. While true on the basis of what physical actions are taking place, it misses the very acts of creation that are the purpose of just sitting there in front of the computer, or the very real acts of creation, healing, sustaining, mentoring, teaching, inspiring, and defusing that are actually taking place.
When our member shared of her loss online, I offered only my brief condolences because without being together there are very strict limits to what can be done, and shared. Grieving is not something that can be entirely done in isolation. There are parts to grief that require family or community. Such things are private, bringing a degree of vulnerabilty, a kind of helplessness and exposure far more frightening than any physical nakedness; yet the most powerful and effective tools for draining the most damaging poisons from those inner wounds, and beginning the hard work of processing and healing can most effectively be done in a community or family setting.
The dark time of Disirblot behind us where we stood and counted the cost of those we had lost this dark time, where we took up the tools of life again and asked that they be blessed to bring forth bounty again, as we stood in the darkness and want of the winter, and prayed for the spring to return. We stood at Easter; Ostara. This is the time of renewal, of the spring and the promise of the returing life. We stood the old and the young, the bereaved and the new parents, the children on the cusp of becoming men and women and we raised the horn in holy sumbel and offered to our gods, wights, ancestors, and our worthy dead.
She who had lost raised the horn to him who had passed, and with that action her wounds broke open and she wept. We embraced her, for if a person was worthy of love in life, then praise and tears are both worthy offerings in death. His body is gone, his memory is still bright as she shares with us why it will be ever bright for her, so too will we keep it bright for her. To be emotionally naked before those you do not trust is dangerous, yet to be so before those you trust absolutely is both safe and empowering. We share a measure of her pain, and she a measure of our strength. She can see how we honour her for the honour she shows him, how we accept her offerings of praise, and of tears as not signs of weakness in her, but of honouring the relationship to the one who was lost. Looking in to each others eyes, hearing our words, feeling our hands upon her shoulders, she KNOWS she is not alone, as we know she has been there, and will be there for us when we have our times of trial and want.
We feast and we talk, oh how we talk. I cannot remember everything I ate and drank, although it hardly seemed we stopped talking a second, our noble hosts were always refilling our glasses, and the pot-luck could have fed easily twice our number and a small pack of wolves besides, so we grazed while we chatted. Time, like it always does got away from us, and before you knew it, early afternoon was approaching midnight.
We left to our separate homes and halls, buoyed by the strange energy that comes from Heathen ritual, that odd kind of magic that does not simply fill you with energy but restore your balance so both your mind and body seem almost to forget such trivialities as age, injuries, and the limits which generally constrain us. There is a rightness that comes from our time together that acts on a physical, emotional, spiritual level. A sense of belonging, of being a part of this living community, joined in the sight of our gods and ancestors; coming together to offer to our wights, ancestors and holy gods, and very much also for the healing and development of our folk or individual members.
Oh, and there were chocolate Mjolnir’s, because even in grief, our worthy woman could not pass up the chance to brighten our company with gifts that please on multiple levels, like little white and dark chocolate Mjolnirs she made herself from molds she found online.
Community practice is a living thing, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and that gives back more than you put into it. I really don’t have the words to adequately describe what is essentially felt, more than really understood. I may not have the words to adequately define it, but I know that this spirit, this heathen community that we build is what drew me long ago, sustains me now, and will be helping others when my ashes are long scattered in the waves.