So I have been spending A LOT of time this month engaged in independent introspection through my own meditation practices, in my readings and in reflection writing sessions in response to the readings Seth has assigned. I enjoyed my alone time greatly but was open to testing out the shared experience of a community spiritual gathering. I was asked to participate in at least one religious or spiritual service this month. I was happy that I was able to participate in two. The two were very different in their own right and I feel as if I could have written a blog post on each as I had very different experiences and feelings about each of them, but as Seth mentioned in his initial chapter challenge this month he wanted this chapter “to be to be more internally reflective and self-examining.” My descriptions of both events will inevitably leave out some details as I am still examining my reactions to both experiences and may be able to write more about them at another time. Here and now, I will leave you with my initial observations – excuse the lengthy post. Both experiences were intense and full; I thought some readers might find interest in the comparison.
On Island: St. Croix Virgin Islands
The day before I left St. Croix I attended a gathering called a Women’s Bush Bath. I knew very little about what this process was, how it would unfold or what it was exactly for. But it sounded like a wonderful process to be a part of and a great way to say goodbye to the island for a few months.
The event itself happens from time to time throughout the year and is organized by one or more women who decide to initiate it. This particular one took place on a full moon Sunday morning. I was invited by a new friend on the island and was told to come only with herbs, flowers and an open mind. Oh and to wear a bathing suit. The gathering was held on a beach on the East end of the island looking out to America’s only underwater national park – Buck Island. The beach was virtually empty outside of the group of about 20 women who attended. There was a very open and organic structure to the gathering, but from beginning to end it lasted about an hour and a half. Women arrived with bags of wild flowers and herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme). Each woman greeted each other warmly as they arrived and laid out their beach towels in a circle around several buckets of fresh water. The organizer reminded us as we sat down in the circle to engage with those that we did not know (someone of a different age or a different race, someone from the island or a visitor) We were then asked to prepare the bath. Each woman from the age of about 6 – 66 was asked to distribute the flowers and herbs into the waters. Each of us took our turns scattering and dunking the bright red hibiscus, the orange and pink bougainvillea and rose petals, along with a myriad of other wild tropical blossoms into the buckets of fresh water. We were asked to put our positive intentions for ourselves and others into the water with the flowers and then take a short walk away from the circle for a personal moment of contemplation. We were asked to conjure all that is not serving us anymore – look at it directly and let it go. Upon our return to the circle a few prayers of gratitude and intentions were said over the water. Each of us were asked to call on a maternal figure from our ancestry to bring support to the circle and prayers of gratitude were spoken. Each person was asked to focus on their special skill or purpose (a word or an idea that they felt they were able to give to the world) We all spoke that word into the circle then one by one were bathed. Starting with the youngest and then the eldest in attendance, each woman took a turn dunking coconut shells, and flower pots into the water showering the (now warmed by the sun) fragrant mixture of herbs and flowers over the heads, arms, and bodies of each participant. After being bathed, each person bathed the next woman in line. Following the cleansing we formed a line by the sea’s edge and took in the view of the island in the distance, the sound of the crashing waves and the chants of one woman singing. When all had completed the bath we brought the line into a circle and said our goodbyes to one another.
Exactly one week after the Bush Bath, I attended a very different spiritual gathering.
While Inland: Harrisburg Pa
In an effort to understand or reconnect with my childhood Catholic rearing, I returned to the Catholic Church that I attended as a small child. I had not been to a mass for at least 15 years and had not been to this particular church in 25 years. Although I have rejected the teachings of the Catholic beliefs and the structure and formalism of the religious practice, there were few things about the process that I still remembered to be comforting. My Grandfather played the organ each Sunday and the colored stained glass windows glowed with light from outside in the dark building. I wanted to see if there was still some comfort there to share in.
I arrived early in the Harrisburg neighborhood where my Grandparents lived and started my Sunday with visiting their old house. As many things are when you return to them, it was a bit of a disappointment. The house now looked very small, the willow tree I remember in the back was gone and both houses on either side were empty. Going back to the church around the corner where my Grandfather played the organ was also a bit of a disappointment. I thought I would somehow have, if not a spiritual connection, maybe a feeling of nostalgia or warm memories. What I found instead was the following:
It was a cold wintry morning (yet technically a few days past the first day of Spring) Even inside the church I found myself still shivering. I sat in the back and watched as the pews filled up with people quietly filing in. There were a few kids squirming sitting in a separated section of the church reserved for them and 3 men dressed in long white robes overseeing the service on a raised stage in the front of the room. The wall held a large golden-colored cross with the figure of Christ nailed to a cross. The colored windows that I remembered were now dampened by new blinds that looked strangely like bars on the windows.
The service started out with a reminder and request to focus on the sins that we have all committed throughout the week. “Remember what you have done and confess your true nature” were the words of the preacher. This was followed by a story of Moses and a lesson about what love is to each of us and what is should not be. We were asked to face our truths but only in an “appropriate” context. After this homily, we were reminded to donate to the church and asked to volunteer in the telemarketing plea for donations for the church. The upcoming Easter services were also mentioned (there would be an egg hunt following mass on Easter Sunday). This was preceded the basket passing for church donations. The blessing of the gifts were then made and the body and blood of Christ were consumed shortly after by the congregation – communion. In between homily and donation requests the congregation stood up, sat down, kneeled and prayed intermittently. Songs were read and sung from the prayer books and prayers were repeated in unison after the preacher had recited them. The final message passed on before leaving was about how following the “lamb of god” would take your sins away. “Let us leave you with the mystery of faith.” We gave our handshakes of peace, there was another hymn played and I left the Catholic Church for the last time as the bells were ringing in my ears.