“I believe that these circles of women around us weave invisible nets of love that carry us when we’re weak and sing with us when we’re strong.”
–SARK, Succulent Wild Woman
Seven years ago, a small postcard at the local Unitarian Universalist church caught my eye. It was for a Cakes for the Queen of Heaven facilitator training at Eliot Chapel in St. Louis. I registered for the training and went, driving alone into an unknown neighborhood. There, I circled in ceremony and sisterhood with women I’d never met, exploring an area that was new for me, and yet that felt so right and so familiar.
I’d left my two young sons home for the day with my husband and it was the first time in what felt like a long time that I’d been on my own, as a woman and not someone’s mother. At the end of the day, each of us draped in beautiful fabric and sitting in a circle around a lovely altar covered with goddess art and symbols of personal empowerment, I looked around at the circle of women and I knew: THIS is what else there is for me.
My work following the birth of my first son came to center heavily around pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding, the stage of life in which I was currently immersed. I’d wondered several times what I would do when those issues no longer formed the core of my interest and personal experience. How could I ever stop working with pregnant and birthing women? How could I stop experiencing the vibrance and power of pregnancy and birth? Would I become irrelevant in this field as my own childbearing years passed me by? Looking around the room at Eliot at this circle of women, only two of whom were also of childbearing age, I knew: my future purpose would be to hold circles like this one.
I found something in Cakes that I needed, the recognition that I wanted to celebrate and honor the totality of the female life cycle, not just pregnancy. As a girl, I loved the mother blessing ceremonies my mom and her friends held to honor each other during pregnancy. They hosted a coming of age blessingway for all of their early-teen daughters as well and I helped to plan a subsequent maiden ceremony for my younger sister several years later. Locally, we carried that tradition forward into the current generation of young mothers, holding mother blessings for each other and enjoying the time to celebrate and share authentically and deeply.
After my training, I facilitated a series of Cakes classes locally, attended a women’s retreat at Eliot Chapel, and began to priestess quarterly women’s retreats for my friends. One of my stated purposes was to honor and celebrate one another without anyone needing to be pregnant. Somehow, even though our own local mother blessing traditions were beautiful, we had accepted that the only time we had ceremonies with one another was when someone was pregnant. I wanted to change that!
This year, I expanded my offerings into a monthly Red Tent Circle, open to women of many backgrounds. Despite the name, our local Red Tent Circle doesn’t focus exclusively on menstruation or on currently menstruating women, since all phases of a self-identified woman’s life cycle and her many diverse experiences and feelings are “held” in the safe space of the circle. However, one of the core purposes of our circling together is in celebration. We gather together each month to celebrate being women in this time and in this place, together.
While we may have had a first taste of this type of celebration during a mother blessing ceremony, I feel that care, attention, value, and ceremony can be brought into our non-pregnant lives through gathering together in a Red Tent Circle. This is one reason why I also developed an online Red Tent Initiation Program this year. This program is designed to be both a powerful, personal experience and a training in facilitating transformative women’s circles. These circles bring a sense of celebration and power more fully into our lives as we honor the fullness and completeness of women-in-themselves, not just of value while pregnant or mothering.
When we create intentional rituals they are, in themselves, a kind of “mandala of the whole universe.” The ritual is like a miniature version, a microcosm, of a pattern which we would like to see expressed at a larger level. In the anthology, Stepping Into Ourselves, D’vorah Grenn writes about Jewish priestesses explaining, “… Every day, we witness the positive, transformative effects of, ‘restoring women to ceremony’…another reason it is vital that we continue our work…” (p. 56).
At the center of my priestess altar, I put a bowl that I made during one of our women’s retreats. It feels like a symbol of gathering the women and restoring them to ceremony. Inside of it, I placed a tiny hummingbird feather as a reminder that these circles and relationships are delicate, surprising, and beautiful and need to be treated with care.
Molly is an ordained priestess who holds MSW and M.Div degrees and she is currently writing her dissertation about contemporary priestessing in the U.S. Molly and and her husband Mark co-create original birth art jewelry, figurines, and goddess pendants at Brigid’s Grove and she is the author of Womanrunes: a guide to their use and interpretation. Molly has maintained her Talk Birth blog since 2007 and writes about thealogy, nature, practical priestessing, and the goddess at her Woodspriestess blog. Her online Red Tent Initiation program begins August 29 and her Womanrunes Immersion ecourse in October.
11 thoughts on “Restoring Ourselves to Ceremony: Red Tent Circles, by Molly”
Beautiful! Love your article and can relate. Blessings on your path.
Thank you, Karen!
I think this is so healing…especially for older women who never were celebrated.
Love your story. I remember the first time I took the Cakes class. I still lived in Orange Co., and the class was held in farthest Long Beach, or that’s how it seemed. It was a good 45 minutes’ drive. I didn’t know anyone in the class, but we were soon a united group. I took the class again a few years later, after I’d moved to Long Beach. It was still a lovely experience. I don’t think I read the Red Tent book until I was past the age where it was appropriate for me, but I still enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing your story. Blessed be!
You know the saying, “Cakes changed my life!” It is true! I never actually attended a Cakes series taught by anyone else, the workshop I went to that I describe in my essay was a “train the trainers” workshop, teaching us how to teach the course for others. It really had a profound impact on me and my later work.
Thanks, Molly, for your personal history around ceremony. The “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” changed my life, too, but a little earlier than you. I took the class in 1987 or 1988 during the very first months of becoming a Unitarian Universalist, and decided immediately that I would teach it. Having taught in the Women’s Studies Program and already being Wiccan, I recognized instantly its importance for women. But I didn’t realize its importance to me. As a result of teaching the class, I changed my career focus and began to do workshops for women that involved ritual and empowerment.
During my most recent keynote, I ended my talk by plugging the Red Tent Movement as an updated and ritualized counterpart to the very empowering consciousness-raising groups I had attended in my 20s an 30s, only to discover that the organizers had created a red tent on the premises of the UU church where we were meeting! It’s important work! I hope your training turns on lots more women to provide this space and time for women in their communities.
Absolutely, Nancy! You know the saying, “Cakes changed my life!” It really does! The workshop I went to that I describe in my essay was a “train the trainers” workshop, teaching us how to teach the course for others. It really had a profound impact on me and my later work. And, yes, I completely agree that the Red Tent Movement is in many ways an evolution or re-invention of feminist consciousness-raising. I talked for years about wanting an “old-fashioned” CR group and no one was particularly interested. I taught Cakes and started women’s retreats and a Red Tent Circle and…they came! :)
Cakes for the Queen of Heaven has a wonderful curriculum which they periodically update as I recently discovered. Enjoyed your post.