Ancient memories dance to life within us—if we let them.
Like an empty vessel that still retains the fragrance of a scented oil, our DNA remembers our welcoming hopes for the returning light. Our Northern Hemisphere ancestors couldn’t lengthen their dark days by flipping a wall switch, but lit their way with dripping candles or smoky lanterns. They measured days left until the returning light by a decrease in coins spent on candles and whale oil.
History tells us they feasted and partied on the days surrounding the Winter Solstice. It reminded them of the promise of transformation: days WILL lengthen; the land WILL warm; the crops WILL grow—the light WILL return (1).
My pagan friend, Terryl Warnock, dwells close to nature. In her book, Miracle du Jour, she chronicles the subtle means in which a spiritual relationship with nature and the world can touch our lives in miraculous and healing ways (2).
Ms. Warnock’s friends know that come seasonal apexes of the year, she’s unavailable. She retreats to her meditative solitude to honor her Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine traditions. Her cocooning gently reminds me of Winter Solstice’s spiritual symbolism.
Spiritual Transformation: A fundamental change in a person’s sacred or spiritual life.
Dr. Raymond Paloutzian says that “spiritual transformation constitutes a change in the meaning system that a person holds as a basis for self-definition, the interpretation of life, and overarching purposes and ultimate concerns” (3).
Changing your meaning system is not like changing your red jacket for black. It’s a process of transformation, just as our long nights slowly shorten until June 21 when the sun reaches its zenith.
Clinical psychologist William M. Schafer lists four elements of spiritual work leading to a spiritual transformation (4). Although he references Daoist philosophy, these four elements are not exclusive to Daoism, but are present in almost all spiritual paths which lead to metamorphosis.
Number 1: The first is stepping onto the path, crossing that threshold. We can stare at the line for years, knowing change needs to come. Usually a catalyst of suffering pushes us over, onto this solitary path. We decide the pain of staying is greater than all the fears of stepping out into the unknown. Who will unfriend me? What’s my loss? Will the light return?
We Welcome the Observer
Number 2: As we walk on the path, we discover we’re not even sure what we’re walking toward, or what we might find. We’re walking and waiting and watching for something. This is when we find comfort in mindfulness/meditation practices, whatever our faith. We learn stillness, the second element. Our egos struggle against this nothingness, this cocooning. But we learn to be the nonjudgmental observer: Isn’t that interesting, we think, as we watch our emotions and thoughts scurry around us.
We locate those emotions and thoughts and their subsequent energy in our bodies, where we’re holding tension, pain, anger, or anxiety. We breathe into that space and relax into it. We don’t push the pain away, and it becomes our teacher. We examine our life’s assumptions driving this pain to determine if they’re still serving us.
Presence: A Nameless Space
Number 3: Schafer calls this principle Presence, the idea behind it is that we are not alone on this journey. He doesn’t call Presence a person, because that suggests something like us: “An individual who has a point of view and a certain way it wants the universe and all the beings in it to evolve.” I, too, stay away from that anthropomorphic position, as it gave me nothing but sadness and sorrow for many years.
Presence can come upon us unawares. One day while sitting mindfully you notice that, unbidden—it’s just there. You sense a nameless Space around you. You don’t know why or how it’s there, it just IS. It’s a strange sense, after so long of feeling nothing, but it contains peace, comfort, and reassurance. It’s a stream you dare to name Love, and you step into it as if separate, but yet not separate from it. It’s like a bowl of mashed potatoes: where does the potato end and the milk begin?
But it doesn’t mean your pain disappears in its entirety.
Decades ago, Ms. Warnock fled to the Divine Feminine after a house break-in and brutal rape at knife point sent her bloodied and broken teen-aged body to the ER. As with many rape survivors, the confirmation hearings over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh triggered painful memories.
It’s not either/or: Pain OR Presence. It’s AND: Both coexist within us, and Presence keeps the pain from destroying us.
We Dwell in Physicality as well as Transcendence
Which leads me to Schafer’s Number 4: Living in Presence is an Eternal Process. Our human awareness of this Presence will come and go. We would like to have one life-changing enlightenment, to walk around with that beatific smile on our faces reflecting our constant and unflappable inner serenity.
But we dwell in physicality as well as in transcendence. In our physicality, we catch glimpses of the light, like walking on a tree-lined path in the spring when the sunlight and shadows mottle the path through emerging leaves.
Most religions celebrating this time of year include light: Christians call Jesus the Light of the World. Jews light candles honoring Hanukkah. Kwanzaa celebrants light a candle in a special holder called a kinara.
Wherever you’re at on this path, the Winter Solstice can bring comfort, knowing that the light will return, that there are times in life, when like winter, we hibernate in stillness and quiet, waiting for the next phase of life.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, I encourage you to dip below the surface of these traditions and ponder how the light—and darkness—you’re given can inspire spiritual transformation.
Notes & Sources:
1.In the Southern Hemisphere, Winter Solstice occurs around June 20 or 21.
2.Warnock, Terryl. The Miracle du jour, MoonLit Press, LLC; 2017. https://www.amazon.com/Miracle-du-jour-Terryl-Warnock/dp/0989469859
3.Paloutzian, Raymond F. (2005). Religious conversion and spiritual transformation: A meaning-system analysis. In Raymond F. Paloutzian & Crystal L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 331-347), New York: Guilford. As quoted in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_transformation
4.Schafer, William M. Roaming Free Inside the Cage, A Daoist Approach to the Enneagram and Spiritual Transformation. iUniverse; 2009.
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.