Celtic Quartered CircleA Witch is Seldom Alone

I put on my coat and head for the door. I think of going up into the pasture to meditate, but I decide I need to walk. Closing the door behind me, I am swallowed by the dark. It is the waning moon after Halloween, and only the stars give light. The road is an ashy ribbon; my feet are the only sounds. The stars are jewels hung in the bare branches of the wild cherry tree.
I let the rhythm of my stride lull me into a half-dream, until I feel a creeping between my shoulder blades. There is the vivid sense of something behind me, and if this were a trance journey, I know I would see Him when I turn to look. 

I turn. I see only darkness. Once more, I resume my walk along the country road. 

I didn’t become a Witch in order to join a coven of thirteen. Does anyone? Despite the forms of modern Wicca, surely for most of us who name ourselves Witch, the original attraction is to the old, archetypal figure of the Witch, living alone in a little hut at the edge of the woods. Certainly that was the figure I grew up with in my imagination. And as joyful and meaningful as my contacts with other Pagans and Witches have been, it has been as a Witch alone that I have experienced most of what is meaningful to me in my religion.

The high pasture is to my east, where the shoulder of the mountain looms behind it. I can see my neighbor’s house, now, and across the road a streamlet has cut itself a silver runnel in the turf, up there by the crossroad. This is the place I once heard something like a woman singing, and yet not. Looking up now, I watch a shooting star mark the spot.
I walk on. I stop thinking. I feel wind cutting my face, opening my eyes until they seem clearer and more awake than usual, although I am almost blind here in the shadows. 

I think about this sometimes, now that I’m a High Priestess of a fairly bustling coven. When do I ever walk into my house without a half a dozen messages on the answering machine? The standard response to a ringing telephone in our house is a groan… But, again, almost never do I pick up the receiver without finding the person on the other line someone I really want to talk to. I love my Pagan friends and my coveners, and they feed my spirit. The work we do together is meaningful and rich: healing magick for a child with cancer; more healing magick for a dying elder, to ease their passage. This week one of us has lost their job; last week I was asked to bless an expectant mother’s pregnancy. The study coven will meet at my house tomorrow, and there’s a Sabbat to plan for next week. This is the work of the Witch, and I honestly do love it. It gives me everything I need, spiritually… except, of course, for solitude.

Soon I pass another house, a warm cluster of lamplit windows where I am not expected. I feel like someone in a story, and that house looks kindly to me. Though I would like to stop and bask in its light, I know that even here, among my neighbors, the people who live there might feel uneasy if they see me standing, watching from the darkness. I move on, leaving their lights behind. 

When I was a new Witch, living in Vermont with my baby daughter and her father, solitary visions were all I had. Working from books and magazines, I taught myself to seek the Goddesses and Gods in meditations and trance journey. I taught myself to see my own aura, and, by trial and error, to cast a simple spell. When I finally found those first few other souls who felt as I felt, and believed as I believed, I became drunk with the excitement of it. So much of my early work as a Witch had been in silence and without validation, that coming into my first Pagan circle was like coming indoors from the frost and the silence of winter’s coldest night. I wept the first time I heard Pagan music played on a friend’s guitar
I grew, and I learned, more and more quickly with the support of loving friends. The night I was initiated as a Witch was a cold one, just past Samhain, and there was snow spitting at me from the high Vermont hills where we had gathered. When we came inside when the ritual was done, to food and music and laughter, I began to feel for the first time what so many of us have described: having found my people, coming home at last. And that Beltane night a year or so later, when first I drew down the moon in a coven of my own, something in me cracked wide open. So much of the bitterness and shame and foolishness I’d hoarded in me for a lifetime came spilling out. I didn’t become someone else, but, in a sense, by letting Her flow through me, I became myself for the first time.

As I pass the graveyard, where neighbors a hundred years dead keep their silence in the night, another star falls above me, like a blessing or a tear. 

It wasn’t exactly gratitude that made me become a teacher of the Craft, and it wasn’t exactly a plan. More like the way my Witchcraft grew, or the unwinding of the road beneath my feet. I found myself questioning safe assumptions that had held my life pressed neatly together, like the twin halves of a walnut shell. As I said, my relationship to the Goddess cracked something in me wide open, and when the changes were done, I found myself living in a different state, divorced, remarried, and beginning to teach what I had learned. Or to try to teach. Truthfully, I think that all I can offer as a High Priestess is one half of the experience I had: the welcoming and firelit part. The lonely road students have to discover for themselves. And they do—but, meantime, Witchcraft for mehas become mostly a matter of details: making sure everyone gets directions to the ritual site, that the ritual starts on time and that every student learns to ground as well as raise the power. This is meaningful work, but hardly ecstatic
I hear a noise, now, just behind me. This time, as I turn, I see I have a companion: a black darker than the shadows, and a white bright enough for even my eyes to see. Skunk. As I move quietly on he keeps pace beside me, like a tame cat or small dog. In a while, he turns aside, busy with errands of his own. 

"If you see the Lord Herne, tell Him I miss Him," I call out, softly. The skunk does not answer me, and again I am alone, my only company the cutting edge of Vermont wind and the sound of my own feet.
There is a saying among Buddhists: "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water." And Witchcraft, even more than Buddhism, is a religion of the here and now of life. Having been to the mountaintop, of course I must return to the valley and share what I have seen. But there has to be a balance. If I only teach and act as my coven’s administrator, my spirit will die, and my spiritual teaching will be a dead teaching. And so I read, and write, and teach, and lead and focus energy within the group, and that is good. But I never cease to hunger for those moments of transcendence, even when they leave me quivering and afraid. I need the Gods to lift me out of myself sometimes, not just in drawing down, but in other, more private and mysterious ways. I make what openings I can. I go to some gatherings without my child or my coven, so I can greet my Gods outside my roles of Mom and teacher. I walk my dog alone in the woods, and I try to listen to what I hear in the quiet. And I go, from time to time, to Quaker meeting, where I can feel the presence of community and Spirit without being center stage.

These times are harder to arrange than you might suppose.

But my hunger is part of my spiritual journey, too. Without community, I had so little focus or purpose in my life. And without my time alone, or at least my hunger for it, what would remain of mystery in me? I didn’t put this longing into me. I like to believe that Theydid, and that They have a reason for it.

Suddenly, I hear it: another sound… hooves? Hard, vigorous, in the road ahead. I hardly dare to breathe, though the sound is gone almost as soon as I hear it. The wind falls still. Rusted apples from a ruined tree squelch beneath my feet. A pasture slopes away from me, halfway down to the valley floor below. And now I hear it truly: hooves. One set, heavy, running. A large animal, quite near. My heart beats fast. Not a cow—much too swift and no one pastures cows near here. A horse? Again, there are none near. Could it be a deer? It must be! But so large! A great deer…
The sound of hooves is gone as suddenly as it came. I watch until I am very cold, but I neither see nor hear anything more. I turn at last for home—and now I feel it once again, that creep behind my back. Always, always, what I seek and what I long for is just behind me, just beyond sight. I walk alone, looking for my Gods in the shape of a tree trunk, the sound of hooves, and the feel of wind. I can’t tell if my hunger is emptiness or fullness. Am I blind? Or do I live in visions? 

So I walk home again. Wood smoke and the brilliant yellow lights of home enfold me. I take off my coat, put away my athame, and reach for my pen, ready to write down all that I have seen, or not seen, while I wandered alone in the dark. 

Copyright © Cat Chapin-Bishop, 1998 Reprinted with permission

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