I want to celebrate the Spring Equinox singing seasonal songs in circle, sharing with others, meditating and attuning my mind to new beginnings, enjoying the feeling of longer days and the equilibrium between day and night and singing to it, either in nature or in an appropriately decorated space. And meditate at the end. One experience for the voice, the mind and the senses that could be perceived as a Pagan celebration.
And it is Pagan, in so far as it’s a celebration of the Spring Equinox, except that I have no religious or esoteric beliefs of any kind whatsoever. And yet I would still celebrate every Solstice and every Equinox, as I feel this is something aesthetically, artistically and psychologically well suited to my personality and tastes.
In this respect I would consider myself spiritually sceptic and aesthetically pagan. But my celebration is intended to be open to all faiths and beliefs, and I think we can find common ground in acknowledging that the Solstices, the Equinoxes and the phases of the moon are real. They are facts we can easily agree on, that Spring Equinox does exist, while the existence or not of different deities or things such as the “spirit” would always be debatable between different individuals and subject to opinions and ways of thinking and feeling. But I promise that up to now I haven’t found a single person who would say that an Equinox is ‘fake news’. Even flat-Earthers have their own theories on how can that happen, wow!
So the finding of common ground is a fascinating endeavour for me. And the second factor that adds to it is ritual, and how we relate to it. And so I want to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years ago, when the Grenfell Tower tragedy happened.
I was at that time (and still am) leading a singing group at the Latymer Christian Centre, in Latimer Road, so very close to the tower. Two days after the fire I was called and asked if I could lead the singing for the interfaith service that was taking place that very day on the street in front of the Church. I had never been in an interfaith service before, but I wanted to help with what I could, so I accepted and rushed to prepare a few songs for the people. I won’t go now into the details of the narrative on how it was to get there and what I witnessed, as I was trying to do my best in such an emotionally charged atmosphere, in such drama. It was a tremendous experience that impacted on me immensely at an emotional and physical level.
I had never been to a service like this before, and I had also never before witnessed such sense of unity, when literally hundreds of people in the street, from all beliefs and faiths, were holding hands, crying and singing together and hugging each other, showing unity in getting organized, supporting and helping each other, being available for whatever was needed and also in song, that manifested with tremendous strength.
There was the Imam, the Christian priest, the Rabbi… all coming together, the very hospitable Sikhs running free food stalls, and I felt like “this is how things should be”, watching a segment of the world where they all supported each other, very different to what we many times see in the media and amongst people with a higher rank in the power hierarchy. But having said that, I also realized that someone was missing. It would be a good idea to include a representative of secularism in an interfaith service, to have it complete. Not that I think atheism and scepticism are faiths (although some people would include them into such category) but they do indeed present a set of beliefs, and considering that according to survey by BSA (British Social Attitudes, 2017) more that half of the UK population has no religion, it only makes more sense to me that secularism is represented in an interfaith meeting.
As much as some talk about “spiritual atheism” I would add to it the concept of “sceptical paganism”, as a way to mean we who would celebrate nature, without esoterism or spiritualism in it. Unless we consider that the spiritual is not necessarily the presence or the existence of the spirit, but rather as opposed to materialism, so that would be people who are interested more in meaningful experiences. This would certainly include the concept of Spiritual Atheism that I mentioned before.
As humans in the past revered the seasons and the elements, we need more than ever to acknowledge that nature and the planet are our home, and the most important thing to care for, and why not, honour. Besides, I notice that with growing numbers of people with non religious beliefs, secular society is missing out in something important: ritual. And there is a big need for ritual in society.
Rituals help us transition from a stage to another, they support us in grief or in celebration, they can help us centre our mind and set our intentions and course of actions for a period of time, they can help us feel a sense of togetherness in a community and they provide us with meaningful experiences in our life.
So many of us don’t want to go without ritual, be they already part of an organized system, or of our own creation. I rather create. I can’t really cope with the commercial and consumerist sides of Valentine’s or Christmas, but only happily will when that side has been tweaked, softened, or even better, substituted by a real sense of community or connectedness to your inner self.
How do I go about it for my Equinox celebration? In a most reflexive way. After having considered my experiences, what I really feel and believe and what I can offer to others, I know I will do it from an honest position, from a place of truth of who I am, and at the same time inclusive of other positions and beliefs. So the interfaith approach is indeed the one that speaks for me, the one that speaks authenticity. I will be feeling connected in my mind to the concept and reality of Spring, the equal duration of day and night, the concept of equilibrium (external and in our mind), and how this can manifest in our bodies and voices. And I will feel a sense of sacredness in which I don’t believe in my mind, but my emotions can recall. And I will aim for that sense of connectedness and wholeness, and realise the beauty of people approaching the singing workshop and living it according to their own beliefs, around a common ground that provides a safe environment. There could be pagans who come for the beauty of celebrating Ostara as a time for renewal and rebirth, but very close it Spring is Easter (same root as Ostara), sharing this idea of renewal and new life, with the egg as it’s symbol. Jewish passover does also coincide approximately with Spring, celebrating liberation, new life one could say, and Buddhists in Japan celebrate Higan, in the week during the Spring Equinox, celebrating reincarnation, Balinese tradition celebrates Nyepi, when the dark moon of the spring equinox comes, meaning a return to balance in nature. In Iranian Zoroastrian homes, they celebrate Nowruz, planting seeds on 21st March; China recognises the change of season celebrating Qing Ming at the beginning of April, with lanterns, tree planting and kite flying. This, to give some examples.
It was through my contact with Rev Prof June Boyce-Tillman, Professor of Applied Music at Winchester University and founder of the Centre of the Arts as Wellbeing at that University, where I had the pleasure to meet her, when in a long conversation she said something interesting about living in a post-spiritual time. She said that people need to have meaningful experiences to make sense of their lives, and that singing leaders and in a way, are mentors who can support in the providing of these experiences.
In this days of climate change emergency, where awareness and joint of all our strengths are needed if we would like to survive in this planet as a species, awareness on the only thing that we really have, this planet, is essential, is vital and if there is a way to contribute to this awareness by creating sense of community around nature, I won’t lose a moment in trying to do my bit, so here is my first Equinox workshop.
An event that celebrates something as natural as the seasons, that is embracing and inclusive to a great range of beliefs, is indeed what I attempt to construe with seasonal mindful celebrations with singing.
In an increasingly secular society, the artist is the new Shaman. The artistic mind, the creative, can be a vehicle that connects the material and natural world and the world of the psyche, and if seasoned with a thorough artistic and humanistic training and knowledge of cultural, and social references, the artist makes herself capable of providing the public with aesthetic experiences, physical, psychical, emotional, intuitive experiences. The creative mind is in contact with the inner world and expresses it in relation with the perceived world, as being an artist means to be in touch with the world of the abstract.
The performer or the workshop leader can be both at a time, and provide audiences, participants or service users with experiences to immerse in, where to play as children, get together as a community, become more aware of the natural world or even get in touch with a special sacred space within, whatever that may every be.
Happy Ostara 😉
Maria Soriano is an Associate Member of the Royal Society for Public Health, and member of the Research Group at the Centre for the Arts as Wellbeing, at Winchester University.