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The Sacred Healing Circles Of Home And Family
By Cassie Premo Steele
Family life and the home, as many of us know, can be places of great pain from which “the sacred” can seem like a refuge. This is particularly true for families who have not learned how to deal with life’s sadnesses and who instead numb themselves through denial, drinking or violence. This past spring I was given the opportunity to learn a great lesson about the sacred healing circles of home and family. As lessons often are, it was a tortuously painful one: our kitten disappeared.
My husband and I, married less than a year, had decided to give Laura, his 9-year-old daughter and my stepdaughter, a kitten at the solstice. The kitten—named Melissa after Melissa Etheridge, one of Laura’s favorite singers—was a perky, wild, crazy little thing. We instantly fell in love with the way she would run at the speed of light through the house and the next minute collapse, purring loudly, in our laps. Even my husband, who is allergic to cats and has politely kept his distance from “my” cat, Cecie, bonded with Melissa during two weeks in January when I was away in Mexico at a writers’ workshop. To my amazement, I arrived home, finding my husband with Melissa on his lap more often than not, speaking softly to her, calling her “Little Cat” and Cecie “Fat Cat,” labelling them as parents will often do.
Artwork by Lauren Foster-MacLeod for The Blessed Bee
But on April 1, only one season after Melissa’s arrival, she disappeared. She had recently started going out to play, loved the outdoors, and one day did not come back. We put up posters everywhere, visited the animal shelter, and were wrenched with guilt and anguish. I found myself starting to avoid being alone with Laura, not wanting the subject of Melissa’s absence to surface. I cried to myself, wrote in my journal daily about it, but hid my feelings from my family. We started thinking to ourselves, “What if another family took her — what if she got stuck in a tree — what if some cruel people killed her — what if she jumped in a truck that drove away — what if she’s dead?” These thoughts were made all the more painful because of our guilt and because of our hope. “Maybe she’ll come back ... will she come back?” All our questions were unanswerable, impossible. I began to wonder about Demeter: did she, too, hide her feelings at her loss? Did she, too, ask the impossible and despair at the lack of response?
Then my mentor from graduate school came to visit our home. She had just suffered the death of her mother four and a half weeks before. Like Hecate, she was at the crossroads of life and death. When we told her of our missing Melissa, she suggested we do a mourning ritual as a family. As the goddess-worshipping-women’s-spirituality-group-attending-ready-to-organize-a-ritual-atany-moment woman that I am, I said to her, “I should have thought of that. I would have thought of that if I hadn’t been so sad.” I thanked her for her suggestion, grateful and amazed at her ability to help me even in the midst of her own grief. It was only later that I realized how uncannily she had played the role of Hecate for me — for the Demeter I was becoming.
I started to plan the ritual, choosing a day when the sun was in Taurus (earth, planting, laying to rest), and the moon was in Pisces (water, emotion, grieving), near the very end of the moon’s waning phase (closure, endings, completion.) We were all a little nervous as the day approached, afraid to face our loss, and still feeling guilty (“What if Melissa returns? How can we grieve her if she’s not really gone?”) In planning the ritual, I came to understand Demeter in a much deeper, more profound way. How much more heart-wrenching was her sadness because she didn’t know where her daughter was — or if her daughter would return — or if she was gone forever. And I realized that Demeter, like our family, needed to mourn even when she did not know what would happen. She needed to grieve the reality of her daughter’s loss — regardless of whether or not her daughter came back.
Late afternoon of the day of the ritual came. First, we made cupcakes to eat afterwards, and while they were baking, we each took time to ourselves, preparing emotionally, and choosing an object that reminded us of Melissa to bury in the ground. When the buzzer for the cupcakes went off, we took them out of the oven to cool and together walked out to the “sacred circle” in the southwest corner of our back yard. This is a place at the edge of a forest where I do my solitary magic — and where I have brought friends for rituals — but it was the first time that we’d been there as a family.
There we each lit a pink candle and burned rose incense ( both signifying unconditional love), and we talked — and cried — about what we remembered about Melissa. Her rambunctiousness, playing, biting, jumping, athleticism, purring, tininess, warmth. How she would collect “balls” (seed pods from our huge sweetgum tree in the yard) and bring them in the house as toys, chasing them around the kitchen floor and then piling them in one spot behind the wicker shelf in the kitchen corner. How she would attack Cecie, the older cat — jumping up on high things (a file cabinet, even a room divider!) in order to dive-bomb down. How she would sit on my rocking chair when I got up for a moment and how I would sit back down, not seeing her, then bolt up quickly, exclaiming “Little Cat!” How she would purr so strongly you could hear her from across the room.
It felt so good — even in the midst of all the pain — to say these things out loud to each other and to cry and see each other — man, woman, child — cry. And as we were standing there in the sacred circle, crying and talking, Cecie came to join us, as she has done everytime I have gone there to do a ritual. This time it was especially significant as we were all there as a family.
Artwork by Lauren Foster-MacLeod for The Blessed Bee
Next we did a forgiveness ritual.1 We dipped our hands in a clear glass bowl of water covered with bright pink camellia petals, representing the feminine, the moon, the element of water, and riches.2 The camellias were in bloom at the solstice when Melissa arrived and these petals were from the very last blossom of the season. We splashed the water on our faces while saying, “I forgive myself.” We did this three times, the number of harmony, flow, and group activity.3 Each time, we could feel ourselves becoming calmer, more peaceful, as the cool water refreshed our faces.
Next we imagined the forces that took Melissa away — death, or another family, or the unknown — standing in front of us. Then we dipped our hands in the water again, splashing it on the images, saying, “I forgive you.” We again did this three times, and as we splashed, we allowed the sprinkles of water to extinguish our candle flames. This was very powerful and symbolized our releasing of anger at these forces. After the flames were extinguished, we linked hands in a circle, our fingers still cold and wet, and said together, “We are cleansed. We are free. We will remember you.”
We walked then from the sacred circle in the back yard to the front yard, where a columbine plant was waiting. Laura had chosen it earlier in the day — its delicate yellow and white blossoms reminding us of Mellisa’s gold and white fur. Laura picked a spot under her bedroom window and dug a hole big enough for the plant and our items that we had brought for burial. Laura put in a toy mouse that Melissa loved to play with in Laura’s room. Meili put in his torn-up sock that Melissa had bit and chewed while Meili dangled it over her head, sitting at his computer. I put in three “balls” from her hiding place behind the wicker shelf in the kitchen, as well as a glass — because all the glasses on the shelf would shake and rattle as she climbed the wicker shelf to hide or retrieve her “balls.”
Then we put the columbine plant — symbol of the feminine, the planet Venus, the element water, and the powers of courage and love — into the hole and we used our bare hands to pat the dirt gently down. We poured the rest of the water and camellia petals around the plant in a circle, feeding the columbine her first drink in her new home.
As we straightened our backs from patting Mother earth, Meili looked up to Father Sky and exclaimed, “The clouds have cleared. Look at the clarity of the light!” It was indeed a beautiful, still, green-gold light, the kind that sometimes comes just before the movement of the orangered of sunset.
Next, we went inside the house and danced — wildly, joyfully, laughing and jumping — to Madonna’s song, “Ray of Light.” The words reminded us of Melissa:
Artwork by Lauren Foster-MacLeod for The Blessed Bee
When the song ended, we changed clothes, ridding ourselves of somber blues and greens, trading them in for whites and yellow and orange. Then we sat down to eat the “dirt and worm” cupcakes (chosen by Laura for the yummy gummy “worms” and sweet chocolate “dirt” topping but symbolizing, at a deeper level, our incorporation of the death experience itself.) This treat was especially fun since it was eaten before dinner, and Laura and I indulged in two cupcakes each, not the usual limit of just one.
That night at dinner (pizza and carrots, and Laura didn’t have to finish if she didn’t want to), Laura said, “We should have rituals more often! They make me feel great!” Her eyes sparkled in a way they hadn’t since Melissa disappeared, and she was singing the words of Madonna’s song out loud, repeating, “And I feel ... And I feel ... And I feel.” Her song expressed what we were all feeling: the ritual had opened our feelings for us so we could face them, express them, heal from them.
And we all felt great — not only for having dealt with our feelings about loss, but also because we did it together in the sacred circle, in our front yard, in the living room, around the kitchen table, ritually, as a family. I can say now, looking back, that I became Demeter through the experience of loss, of pain, of mourning, of finding hope, of finding home again. Now all of these places in our home are sacred, endowed with the memories of our beloved pet, our courage to confront our loss, and our tremendous love for each other as a family.
1 The ritual was inspired in part by the forgiveness ritual in Jennifer Louden’s The Woman’s Comfort Book: A Self-Nurturing Guide for Restoring Balance in Your Life (San Francisco, Harper-SanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 182-183.
2 Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (Saint Paul, MN, Llewellyn Publications, 1996) is a valuable tool for using flowers, plants, and herbs in rituals. Camellias are discussed on page 66. Columbine is discussed on page 81.
3 See Vicki Noble’s Motherpeace: A Way to the Goddess Through Myth, Art and Tarot (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) p. 164 and elsewhere, for the significance of numbers.
4 ©1998 WB Music Corp./Webo Girl Publishing, Inc., admin. By WB Music Corp. ASCAP/Rondor Music (London), Limited, Purple Music Limited PRS.
— Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is an award-winning and Goddess-worshipping poet, editor, and teacher living in Columbia, South Carolina. Cassie has written a poetry chapbook, Caves of My Memory; her new book, Moon Days: Creative Writings about Menstruation, is available from Summerhouse Press. She also teaches workshops for women on writing, creativity, and the Goddess archetypes.
This article first appeared in The Blessed Bee #1 - A Pagan Family Newsletter
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