Forget your Perfect Offering (Easter retreat 2017)

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Having not been away over Easter, I had never journeyed through the days and nights before with a gathering of people. And what a joy it was to travel the dark evening of Maundy Thursday through the dark day, blackest night, black without crack day to bright night and exceptionally beautiful sunrise of an Easter morning and then to rest in that for another 24 hours at Othona in Burton Bradstock Dorset. We were blessed with Othona hospitality that you can just sink into and dry sunny weather, blowy winds and so fierce waves and constant birdsong in the woods and Othona trees. My Dawn chorus track for Easter morning was superfluous! I loved re-imagining Easter with the washing of each other’s feet, making hot cross buns and a Celtic cross with branches, greenery and clooties, the Tenebrae, huge Easter bonfire, watching the sunrise over Abbotsbury and Easter communion outside. We followed the story but wove it through with Mary Oliver, Rumi, Rilke, Jan Richardson, GM Hopkins, my own paltry liturgical grounding and blessing bits, and music courtesy of John Tavener, Arvo Part, Davy Spillane, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone and more.

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The highlight for me was nothing to do with my re-imagining but courtesy of the Divine imagination. On Easter morning just after dawn a small group of us went up the hill overlooking Abbotsbury, Portland, and Chesil beach one side, River Bride and her Valley of gentle rolling hills on the other. Dew on the ground and the gentlest halo of mist on the land, swallows accompanied and soared and dipped around us. The sun was behind clouds but a streaky line allowed for a white bleeding into orange light. Personally I thought that was enough – isn’t that how it is? – Just a glimpse but a glimpse enough to keep our hearts open and our eyes awake to other perceptions of the light burning in every living thing. We serenaded the sun with several chants and then as we saluted the sun she rose above the clouds to greet us in all her glory – which of course we couldn’t look at! Someone had mentioned the unmarked chapel in the wood down below. I had never visited but we all wanted to so passing a hare, many Easter bunnies, cows lazily munching and looking up to watch us, and not one but 3 leaping deer, we walked down through a wood in silence, over little wooden bridges and came upon the chapel.

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It was my perfect church – a tall stone arch one end, an altar facing east the other. The altar had several offerings from other earth worshippers – stones, and flowers and candles. And the cross was old and wooden – maybe 1930s? of Christ dressed in robes with a crown – and beautifully simple. Most perfect was that it was a church with no walls. Just trees and the earth, at this time with bluebells, the daffodils gone over, the sun shining through the trees and the birds in full song. As we stood or sat in silence (there was a fallen tree), it all felt so given. The abundance of grace was overflowing. My heart felt it would burst with joy and confidence in the Beloved. Then I called the directions and as we walked back I felt entirely happy at being given such a gift. In a world with Trump and Kim Jong-un playing with their missiles, it was enough to allow my fears to unfold towards the sky and to let them be bathed in hope.

Easter Day Blessing

Bless to us Beloved,

This day, this sunrise,

This opening out into spaciousness

as joyful as the dawn of Springtide

sprung from the cold wintry earth.

As we rise to the rising of life itself

may we know your luminous presence

with us and within us

so we may let go into the present moment

of all the moments that we will be given

in this brand new day.

New Retreat Programme 2017

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Cup and Ring Markings at Ketley Crag Northumberland

My website is being updated and it is not finished yet but in the meantime, on the Retreats page, there are the retreats that I am leading in 2017.  Do book through the retreat houses if you are interested in coming on one. Or if you want to know more first, please contact me.

 

 

Divine Feminine Celtic Pilgrimage July 5-6 2016

Some would call it serendipity, I would call it Spirit but in June I came to the clarity that though I had two books birthing inside me, the one that was to come first was a resource book and maybe app, for pilgrims in Northumbria. There are of course many of these but this would be a spiritual guide and I had been led to some out of the way places and would want to include those. Content enough that I had a shape to my new year back in Durham in September, not a week or more later, I was contacted by two American women who were bringing 3 others to these shores in early July. They had followed a trail from Ireland to Iona and now here to Holy Island and the North East. Together we came up with a plan to spend 2 days exploring St Hild, St Ebba and the Divine Feminine. This is a tiny fragment of what we got up to.

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We walked across the sands from Sandsend to Whitby hearing the story of Hilda and bits of ceremony to orientate ourselves to the place and to Hild and then up the 199 steps to the Abbey. She is so strong and in the shadow of the referendum, I was struck by how much we need her wisdom today. Lowly folks and High Kings all came to her for counsel. She held the Celtic and Roman strands together and ran an equal monastery of men and women. Whitby was the greatest place of learning and education at that time (7C). She governed with energy and inspiration and saw the divine in each person and of course we especially know the story of Caedmon who was a cowherd at the Abbey but who became the first English poet (whose name is known) thanks to Hild’s encouragement.

The Abbey is breathtaking, standing proud on the edge of the land looking out to the sea below, with the sound of the waves and sea birds and swifts circling. Legend has it that when the birds fly over the Abbey, they dip their wings in honour of Hild. We christened this the “Hild tilt” with arms splayed, one low, one high. When we got to it, there was a Chartres labyrinth in the grass which several of us walked. This was a gift as the women I had brought here were experienced Labyrinth leaders and had wanted to find one in Durham. There were no notices about that and little information about Hild – tho if you wanted to know about Bram Stoker and Dracula, you were alright. It reminded us that even with a stonking great beautiful building right in front of you, the gift of women and wisdom generally, are like gossamer – barely visible. You have to look and more than that, you have to be tuned in, in silence and listening in the unknown. Wisdom always feels like this but none more so than in the UK post June 23, 2016.

Hilda spread your cloth of wisdom

Pass your shuttle of golden thread

Through the weft of our shared lives

And warp of all that’s torn and spent

May we as sisters on our journey

Spin with you this sacred web.

Heal the warp

Heal the weft

Pass your shuttle of golden thread.

Weave together the lost

Weave together the found

Weave together the broken

Weave together the strong

Weave together the sad…….

 

……..Reel us in

call us home

stitch us through with love divine

reel us in

call us home

help us trace the wisdom line

reel us in

call us home

mend the tattered fabric of our times.

C.Tess Ward 2016

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Whitby Abbey – the Spectacular!

The next day we rose bright and early and drove through the Northumberland national park – o my! It’s breathtaking – way more sheep than people. I wanted to take my new found sisters to one of my out of the way places – the Lady’s Well at Holystone. Though it’s history is more 12C, it feels to me a holy feminine place as a convent of Augustinian canonesses lived here and I have always regarded water as a female element being about flow and honouring emotions (which it is associated with). Curiously though, when the Victorians put their Celtic cross folly in the middle of the pool, they dedicated it to Paulinus and put a statue of him there with his baptizing cloth. So although probably nothing to do with Paulinus, who baptized Hild, it fitted with our mini pilgrimage. To get to it, we walked in silence through the forest, across a field and it is in a magical grove watched over by yew, oak, beech and holly trees.

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At the altar and round the pool, we had a morning ceremony. This included:

WHEN I AM AMONG TREES by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,”

they say, “and you, too, have come

into the world to do this, to go easy,

to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Thanks be to thee O God that we have risen today

to the rising of life itself.

Carry us like a leaf on a stream

in the abundance of your loving kindness,

new every morning.

C. Tess Ward 2016

By the afternoon we had arrived at Craster. Four of our party walked the coastal path to Beadnell travelling across the golden sands of Embleton, Low Newton and Beadnell.

Dunstanburgh-Castle

We walked past Dunstanburgh Castle which stood sentinel at each point of our afternoon journey. The end of our pilgrimage was Ebb’s Nook. I may have tempted fate by taking water as a theme as by then, it began to rain. So we proceded with a shortened version of my Ebba Vespers. Unlike Whitby Abbey, Ebb’s Nook is hidden – I doubt many of the villagers of Beadnell know it is there. It is on a little promontory – which reminded me of the Burren. It is easy to see how the rocks would have formed the chapel in 12C. What remains is a natural chapel – grassy with layers of rocks and water pools and always the waves washing against the edge of the land. It was a pleasure to speak CF Alexander’s version of one of the verses of St Patrick’s Breastplate together:

Invocation

I bind unto myself today

the strong name of the Trinity

by invocation of the same,

the Three in One and One in Three.

I bind unto myself today

the virtues of the starlit heaven,

the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,

the whiteness of the moon at even,

the flashing of the lightning free,

the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

the stable earth, the deep salt sea

around the old eternal rocks.

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Sadly so little is known about Ebba. She was a friend of Cutbhbert and an exact contemporary of Hild and like her, a Saxon princess who founded a double (both sexes) monastery at Abb’s Point across the border in Scotland which she presided over for 40 years. There is also the story of Ebba the Younger, who was 9C. When the Vikings raided she took a razor and cut off her nose and lips. Her brave sisters watched it and followed suit. When the Danes appeared they were so disgusted they fled but although the nuns were saved from rape, the invaders soon returned and set fire to the convent and Ebba and all her community were killed. We considered the flow of courage in women and how although waves move through the water, the water is at is – it keeps its integrity while being able to move and flow.

We also thought about how Time Team only a few years ago found baby bones in this place from 16-17C. They were unbaptized and Ebba’s Chapel will not have been a burial ground as it was too small. So we imagined the women coming to this sacred – and safe – place to bury their dead foetuses and babies in the hope that they would be taken to heaven. This seemed to us Ebba’s blessing across the centuries, reaching out to those beyond the boundaries.

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We ended with a blessing and felt truly blessed by the still pool and chuckling spring of the morning, the rain and waves of the afternoon and the strong and wise flow of the sacred feminine present in this land that we had just trod, as of course, everywhere.

Blessing

Bless to us this day the sun that is above us

The earth that is beneath us

The ocean all around us

Your rhythm of life within us

flowing and ebbing

and ebbing and flowing

into the evening which lies before us.

C. Tess Ward 2016 (adapted from Iona Community and they from Carmina Gadelica).

Gratitude

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“As I end this day in your safe-keeping

I count three blessings before my sleeping”

This apparent nursery rhyme ending to each day in Celtic Wheel (of the Year – O Books 2007) derived from a dark chapter in my life when I was not feeling thankful at all. I wanted things to be different from the way they were – both the things I had control over and things that I didn’t.  Because of the darkness, the love in my life became extra bright, the cherishing far stronger than it had ever been. And this instinctively spread to appreciating the canopy of the trees, the birdsong, the kindness of people, little things that happened during the day that were light peeping through the cracks in the darkness. Gratitude was not a spiritual discipline I took on because it was good for me, it became a life-saver, a way through. And when I moved on from that chapter, (not by leaving the sadness behind but I by letting it become part of me),  I also inherited what had now become the natural gift of gratitude, and it has never left me.

As I say in the Introduction to the book, finding three things to say thank you for every day is easy in my experience. Others come hot on their tails and if I stopped to really think, there’d be a flood more but I’ve normally fallen asleep by then.

I later came across the words by Meister Eckhart  “If the only prayer you say in your life is “thank you,” that would suffice”  and I entirely agree with him. It covers everything because it removes you from the centre of the universe and acknowledges the grace we are held in every moment of our lives.

But another wise man, the poet and novelist, Patrick Kavanagh said at the end of his life: “Praise, praise, praise / The way it happened and the way it was.”  This puts into sharp relief, the challenge of gratitude. This is a challenge to say whole-heartedly when we think of the difficult things life has thrown at us and harder still when we consider the far greater suffering of others, . So gratitude must be a work in progress for a lot of us. I have noticed though, that I don’t always say thank you for the good things. I can say a prayer that goes something like, “if I’d had the car and not had to waste the entire morning getting to somewhere, I’d never have had the experience of walking by the river in the rain which was good”. If I continue to practice saying thank you every day and night before I sleep, and feeling thankful for what is…….If I continue to try to let the things that I decidedly don’t feel thankful for scud around in the pending section, until they settle, if they ever do………. then one day, one day, I might be able to say Kavanagh’s good words with fulsomeness. Kavanagh, after all, spoke these words because he well knew about grappling with the power of them.   He is also the man who wrote:

“Me I will throw away.

Me sufficient for the day

The sticky self that clings

Adhesions on the wings.”

– From “The Self Slaved”

Spring Retreat – Reconnecting with the Earth

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I am enjoying preparing the retreat that I am leading with Matt Freer next week – Wednesday evening to Saturday lunchtime at Cuddesdon (scroll down 2 posts for details).  We are hoping for a fire one evening, there will be a focussed solo time and I am at this moment, writing short earthy complines to be used in the wonderful chapel at Cuddesdon.  Also loving looking through all the old favourites – Rilke, Rumi, David Whyte, John O’Donoghue and Mary Oliver and some less well known poets.  We are hoping for the weather to hold as there will be much time outside and it is so beautiful at the moment.  Matt is preparing other kinds of things for us to do.  We have 12 people signed up which is a great number but if you wanted to be a latecomer, do be in touch with Cuddesdon and they can add your name.  If any participants are reading this, see you next week.

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Imbolc – white skirts and green hearts

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Imbolc has always been one of my favourite festivals. I’m sure this is partly because my birthday is the following week and so long before I ever knew about Imbolc, snowdrops have heralded excitement and new things. Their defiant energy emerges from the slumbering cold earth with both strength and fragility reminding us year after year that life , however tender, can overcome. Their colour too – green and white, such a magical combination, pure snow white skirts lifting to reveal the peeping green heart. They somehow combine the milk of Brigid and her green mantle. [It is said that Brigid was milking a cow and a poor woman came by and she gave some milk and another and she did the same and when she ran out, the cow produced some more for her to take back to her mother.]

St Frideswides well

We gathered in the dark at St Frideswide’s well in Binsey or “Treacle well”. [St Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford. She had fled to Binsey in a bid to escape marriage to a king of Mercia, whose pursuit of her was halted when he was struck blind at the gates of Oxford. Frideswide’s prayers brought forth a healing spring, whose waters cured his blindness, and the spring was walled into a shallow well which became a focus for pilgrimage, the mediaeval sense of the word ‘treacle’ meaning ‘healing unguent’.]

 It was the perfect place for Imbolc, given that we couldn’t get to Kildare to go to Brigid’s well. It was a healing place where a woman had stayed true to her womanly spirit in a world where expectations were set by men. We came with our lanterns and called the directions in this sacred place under the bright full moon (and Jupiter) with the shadows of ourselves against St Margaret’s church wall and the bare trees flickering.

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We shared the people, places and situations that needed healing – these included personal and global things. Imbolc to me is a particularly feminine festival because of Brigid and it is also Candlemas which is about Mary coming to the Temple, for purification – sadly because religious purity laws deemed childbirth unclean. On the day when Islamic men thought they were cleansing the world by burning an innocent man alive in a cage, it seemed more important than ever, to hold fast to women’s ways of healing the world – which both men and women can inhabit. It is more hidden and doesn’t carry guns but it requires daily attention to the opening of our eyes ears and hearts. As we knelt to put our faces under the arch of the well to touch the water and each well wrapped bottom stuck up in the air, we asked for healing and cleansing and flowing of Spirit through all the troubled and painful lives and places. I was warmed by our prayers and the only thing we could do in the face of such horror and violence. We hummed and offered silence and then one by one gathered up our lanterns and walked back into the moonlit night.

O Caring one,

nurturing, generous and milky kind,

yet defiant as the snowdrop in a cold climate,

come with your healing and your balm

so we might be gentle and strong

and part of the flow of peace.

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Summer Solstice/Pentecost

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A week after Pentecost, the celebration of Spirit and a week before the Summer Solstice, Oxford Forest Church came together in Wytham woods again. We are wanting to see it in every season for a year. We were to be reflecting on the gifts of the sun, at it’s strongest energy waxing towards the longest day bringing light, warmth, colour and abundance already noticed in our gardens, hedgegrows and fields. We also celebrated the presence of Spirit who gives life in all its fullness. So we were thinking of fullness and wholeheartedness in our own lives.

We opened in a circle holding hands using a very simplified version of an opening from Forest Church’s Bruce Stanley. Grounding ourselves in Spirit’s grace and abundance and then taking three mindful breaths with the earth beneath us, the sky above us and the trees around us. We then asked for peace in the north, south, east and west and then asked Spirit for her blessing on our circle.

Then we walked deeper into the woods and Dr Andy Gosler, a University Research Lecturer in Ornithology & Conservation who has been studying at Wytham for over 30 years took all of us to see a bird box. This was a real treat as Andy reached in and brought out a not quite yet fledged Great Tit baby. Strangely the adults were more aghast than the children who may have thought this was quite normal behaviour! I mean aghast both that it was “allowed” which of course it is for a scientist – the bird had already been ringed, and awed with amazement at seeing a baby bird close up, and with it’s mouth open ready for food.

Then the children went off to build a nest together from things they found on the ground. The adults were led into a mindful stand/sit-spot. Firstly noticing through our senses the place we were in. Then paying attention to ourselves, noticing body sensations and then our inner selves and allowing that to be with compassion. Finally enquiring, “what does ‘fullness’ mean to me?” Then we shared together – a deer, a hare, blue damsel flies and many varieties of birdsong had been observed along with other personal things.

Then we returned to the children to tell each other what we had been doing. The nest – a green nest made of oak leaves among other things was incredibly beautiful. Then we had a tea ceremony, made of 3 plants from the summer’s abundance – chamomile for peace and rest, dandelion leaves for cleansing, and elderflower for strength of voice and song. We passed the tea (which was delicious!) around with the words “may the blessing of God’s abundance be with you”. And closed with the Celtic blessing – Deep peace of the running wave to you…..

The afternoon felt full and light and easy – much like summer at it’s height and the unforced rhythms of grace when we just allow Spirit to do what she will. May the blessings of abundance be with us all, wherever we find ourselves.

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Spring has Sprung

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Oxford Forest Church met again last weekend at Wytham Woods to celebrate the first day of Spring in bitterly cold windy weather but without the wintry storms that were promised. Equinox means equal night and Lent may have come from the word to lengthen, as the days grow longer. We were considering the new things that are emerging, that may be what we took into the mid-winter darkness last time or that may not have yet sprung to life to order with the daffodils. The invitation was to offer hospitality to our hearts whatever condition we came in which is the task in Lent anyway.

We called the Directions, this time Franciscan style which I had learnt from my fellow Foresters from other parts of the country ie called in Brother Air and Sister Water etc. Because the beginning was tough for littlies last time, we got them to run from cardinal point to cardinal point, a bit like a massive game of rounders.

Listen to the earth! The seeds are stirring
The buds are breaking
The birds whose song was silenced by winter
are singing of new things.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

Look at the earth!
Waking up with colour in petal and shoot.
The browns and greys turn green and fat again.
Even after flooding and saturation and suffering
the tide of new life cannot be held back
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

And so we shake out our wintered souls
expectant but sluggish,
yet to pierce the cold crust of earth.
All that we are, we offer
for winter is past and spring is come
and the longing in our hidden hearts, you will never turn away.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

Then we walked up the sheep hill, watching the sheep as we went. Matt introduced us to deer ears and owl eyes. Then I led the adults off on a meditation walk pausing to look and listen every now and again and off to our sit spots. The children stayed in the wood and did some games and drew the new things they could see, especially tiny violets. Then Tim led us in a mindful meditation inviting us to nurture and protect the new things that are growing and then we went back down the hill to where Becks had a fire waiting. Other Matt had brought his (beautiful) harmonium along and some of us had brought drums and we sang a chant he had written “unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains a single seed…..” and then we spoke these words and then closed the circle.

What is this mysterious life that hides in cold times and darkness
and returns in full grown gladness?

Living Presence, in this Lenten season, help us to perceive the sights and sounds of growth as the earth springs with new life:
the days brighten
the shoots rise
the birds sing
the frogs spawn
the branches spread
the woods echo
the light breaks forth
the rains fall
the petals open

As we bring all that is emerging in our hearts
turn our faces towards the light of your love.
May we trust the new thing that you are birthing in us
and know your compassion for all that waits to be set free.
As we leave this place, may we be awakened
to the promise of your risen life.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

c. Tess Ward 2014

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The Re-Enchantment Project

Ammerdown 1-2 February

On the first weekend of February, 16 Christians and 16 Pagans/Druids were invited to Ammerdown retreat centre in Bath to take part in a Conversation called “Celebrating Planet Earth”. Ammerdown have a history of facilitating these conversations eg between Protestant and Catholic Northern Irish and other groups of people who have warred in the past. They were clearly good at it. 32 meant that significant people were not included but 32 was a wonderful number to have the kind of conversation required – neither too many nor too few. Ammerdown got out of the way except to provide delicious food, superb hospitality and a wise and quiet presence. Denise Cush, Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University opened, closed and moderated the weekend very well. We had 3 pairs of talks – given by a Pagan and a Christian followed by circles of response to what we had heard. In the first pair “Addressing our Respective Fears and Prejudices”, Graham Harvey (Reader in Religious Studies at OU and author of several books on Paganism) and Steve Hollinghurst (Researcher in Evangelism to Post Culture at Church Army’s Research Unit in Sheffield) both spoke hilariously and knowledgeably about the “elephants in the room”. In the second pair, “Celtic Connections”, Simon Howell, (Team vicar in the Parish of Keynsham and Inter-Faith Adviser in the Diocese of Bath and Wells) and Philip Carr-Gomm (Leader of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) took different approaches. Simon addressed the issue of given that we know so little about the Celts is it not still important that in our imagination, they inhabit a strong spiritual place. Philip talked how Druidry and Christianity have always had shared creative history and about St Presence Community in Brittany who are Christian and Druid –and how moved spiritually he had been by receiving communion there. In the third pair ”Better Together” Liz Williams, (who writes for the Guardian and runs The Cat and Cauldron bookshop in Glastonbury) and myself spoke of the shadow in each of our traditions and of the things we share and can move forward on – a care for the environment, spiritual awareness and Liz added a dialogue of theoretical issues.

In my talk I talked about transformation and needing to meet our shadow in order to be transformed into a new and more integrated place. I invited the Christians to speak this lament with me:
Lament
O Divine One, Source of all,
who gives birth to diversity beyond our imagining.
We have failed to see your embodied presence
shining at the heart of all things
and so divided matter from spirit.
We have divided ourselves from your other creatures.
We have divided ourselves from the care of the earth.
We have divided men from women,
race from race
group from group.
We have divided creation from itself and so we have refused to become whole.
We are sorry and lament the pain we have caused in your name.
Mend our brokenness with your loving kindness
so we may open our hearts and hands to work with each other
for the healing and peace of all the earth.

Imbolc altar, Ammerdown

Throughout the weekend we had times of “worship” celebrating Brigid and Imbolc and breathing in the outside world. Alison Eve and Paul Cudby from Ancient Arden Forest Church led these incredibly well. I loved the Ceile De chants, bannock bread and milk with Ali and tuning into our senses and breath with Paul. However, it seemed strange to me not to share out the sacred times with the Druid/Pagans as we had shared everything else. I felt I missed out there and when they offered an ending, I found the Awens (a chant from deep in the belly out invoking the divine energy of life) a truly wonderful way to end a ceremony. Of course the times in the bar were some of the best for being able to talk more.

In many ways this wasn’t a true conversation in that there was a fair showing of Pagan royalty on one side but on the Christian side, we were almost all Christians who had integrated some form of the Earth traditions into our spirituality and so were already very open to the conversation. However, the whole weekend was so warm and successful, many of us felt a need to take it forward. At the moment, the next step is not clear but we have a name – The Re-Enchantment Project.

We ended our time together in the whole weekend with the Druid’s Oath:
We swear, by peace and love to stand,

Heart to heart, and hand in hand.

Mark, O Spirit and hear us now,

Confirming this our sacred vow.