Practicing the Presence of the Goddess by Barbara Ardinger
Practicing the presence of the Goddess is a term I invented in the early 1990s when I started teaching a class with that name. It started out as a class where I taught women about the goddesses of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons and gradually turned into lessons on modern paganism, then into a class on creating effective rituals and doing magic, and finally evolved into being in the world—practicing Her presence.
When I wrote about ways of being in the world on April 29, I went past mere existentialism and suggested that benevolence is a good way to be in the world. Be kind to people. Be polite. (Or as kind and polite as it’s possible to be in a world that is markedly unkind and impolite.) What benevolence really is, is one element of what I call practicing the presence of the Goddess.
Practicing the presence of the Goddess is a term I invented in the early 1990s when I started teaching a class with that name. It started out as a class where I taught women about the goddesses of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons and gradually turned into lessons on modern paganism, then into a class on creating effective rituals and doing magic, and finally evolved into being in the world—practicing Her presence. As I kept refining and redefining it, practicing the presence of the Goddess became celebrating the wheel of the year plus demonstrating to Muggles that we pagans are not devil-worshippers plus practicing mindfulness in our daily lives. Mindfulness is, of course, paying attention to what we do.
Sometime between 1610 and 1615, when King Louis XIII, his mother Marie de Medici, and his prime minister Cardinal Richelieu were ruling France, a child named Nicholas was born in the duchy of Lorraine, which at the time was part of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany). Young Nicholas was raised in a religious family and at age 18 went off to serve in the Thirty Years War http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War between Catholic and Protestant forces. The Thirty Years War was as savage and terrible as any religious war or jihad we’ve seen in the modern world. Although young Nicholas was captured and charged with being a Catholic spy, he managed to persuade his captors that he was innocent. We cannot doubt that he witnessed many of the atrocities of the war, and it seems likely that he came home with what we today call PTSD. He decided to dedicate the rest of his life to God and became hermit. But solitary living did not appeal to him. He wanted to be part of a community, and in 1642 he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Paris as a lay brother and was given the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was ruler of France now. How did that affect the new friar? Apparently hardly at all. Friar Lawrence was assigned to kitchen duties, then other household chores (someone had to do the scrubbing and cleaning—there were no women in the monastery). He lived a life of great simplicity and eventually began writing little maxims, essays, and letters, which were collected after his death in 1691 and published, along with notes taken by people who had had conversations with him, as The Practice of the Presence of God, http://www.amazon.com/The-Practice-Presence-Spiritual-Maxims/dp/1602060339/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1336751349&sr=8-4 a little book that has been reprinted dozens of times.
One of the practices “necessary to attain the spiritual life,” Brother Lawrence writes, is “to take delight in and become accustomed to [God’s] divine company…. We must continually work hard so that each of our actions is a way of carrying on little conversations with God, not in any carefully prepared way but as it comes from the purity and simplicity of the heart.”
If I remember correctly, I first read Brother Lawrence’s book in the 1980s, about the same time the Goddess began calling me. I wasn’t interested in the Judeo-Christian god anymore, but the life of Brother Lawrence made a lot of sense. No, not the drudgery of it, but the way he perceived the work he was doing. He could be scrubbing out the ovens, repairing the monks’ sandals, performing any difficult task he was assigned—and no matter what he did, he did it mindfully. He carried on his conversations with his god. He prayed and sang as he did the humblest, filthiest, most onerous chores. He gave thanks that his god was present with him in his work.
“I keep myself in His presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God,” he wrote in one of his letters, “which I can call the actual presence of God or to put it more clearly, an habitual, silent and secret conversation…which causes me interior, and often exterior, happiness and joy….”
I put the book down and started thinking. Would what this 17th-century friar was doing work with the Goddess in the 20th century? Could I find a way, short of becoming some sort of pagan nun, to practice Her presence? At the time, I was on a learning curve that went almost straight up, reading every book on the Goddess, goddesses, paganism, the worship of the old gods, and mythology and ritual that I could get my hands on.
For a little while, I thought I was one of those holy people, you know what I mean—better, holier, more sanctified than anyone else. What I was, alas, was mostly sanctimonious. But I kept working on it, and the true lesson of the practice of the presence finally slammed itself into my Missouri-mule-stubborn head. Don’t make such a big deal of it. Do what you have to do in the world and while you’re doing it, keep the Goddess in your head and heart.
Well. Yeah. I wish that were as easy as it sounds. When I was earning my M.A. in the sixties, I worked as a secretary to five psychologists. One lesson they taught me was the concept of learning by successive approximations. That means trying and trying again and each time coming closer to getting it right. I guess that’s what life is: learning to live by practicing living. Learning to practice the presence of the Goddess by practicing Her presence. Earning a living, raising our children, going to movies, driving on the freeways, and, yes, doing housework while talking to the Goddess in some secret way in our heads. One way to do this is to adopt a mantra and put it on automatic in our heads. And getting ourselves off autopilot and paying attention to what we’re doing. Being mindful.
The class lasted for two or three years and eventually I wrote a book about what I’d learned from my students (many of whom became my friends) and other people who knew lots more than I did about goddesses, old gods, paganism, and rituals. The title of that book is Practicing the Presence of the Goddess. (It’s now available in a Kindle edition.) Here’s the poem from the beginning of the book. I wrote it at the winter solstice in 1999. It sort of explains what practicing Her presence means to a modern pagan.
…so I’m just sitting here,
sitting through the year’s dark night,
waiting, wondering, watching.
Is there anything I can do?
“Light a candle,” someone tells me,
“Cast a circle. Let the magic begin.”
So I light and cast and let.
And it’s still, and it’s dark,
and I’m wondering when the light will rise.
“Light your candle,” Someone murmurs,
“Cast the circle of your need,” She whispers,
“The magic is always in you,” She says.
Again I light, again I cast, and I let it be,
and—o, wonders arise—I’m still here,
working, playing, being in the world.
Her candle—that’s always you and me,
Her circle—that’s our blessed dreamlit world,
Her magic—that you and me, community,
Working, playing, being in the world…
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.