Today is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day, and the longest night, of the year. Mayan Calendar nonsense notwithstanding, pagans tend to celebrate this night as Yule, the time when the old sun dies and is reborn anew. We stay up all night, tending candles and fires, carrying the light through the long dark. We tell stories, play music, eat and drink, nap in shifts. Tonight, my household will feast on roast pork, decorate a tree, possibly watch silly movies and/or play silly games, and generally make merry through as much of the night as we can manage with our aging bodies.
Outside, rain and wind is pounding us, and it’s exactly the kind of day where it feels like we’ll never see the sun again, even during the daylight hours. But marking this day and this night with merriment is what gets us through to the other side.
Two years ago, a couple I’d met only recently invited me to a Solstice gathering at their place, which they hold every year. Each time, there is a theme on which the gathered are asked to speak in some way, and invariably it is intensely moving. That year, the theme was faith, and I wrote an essay that encapsulated what I felt about that very loaded word.
I’m pleased to share that essay here, in the spirit of the season, and in the hope that it may bring some illumination.
Happy Solstice, everyone, and Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Christmas, and Joyous Kwanzaa, and Blessed Yule, and joy rain down upon you whatever you do or do not celebrate. Let’s push through to the light.
When I heard about tonight’s theme, I must admit I had a little trouble. Faith is a difficult concept for me, one of those virtues which, like “purity,” has had all the piss taken out of it by Christianity. Faith is George W. Bush following his gut into Iraq. Faith is Creationists who value their fairy tales over scientific evidence. Faith is what got the witches burned, kept the Crusades going for hundreds of years, fueled the Spanish Inquisition, took out the Twin Towers, impregnated and infected teenagers whose only sex education was abstinence-only, and defined people like me – female, bisexual, queer, pagan – as sub-human.
If you can do the hard work, though, of separating faith from its incredibly strong right-wing religious connotations, it’s actually an incredible tool of being human. Because faith, real faith, isn’t about blind belief in dogma. It’s about mystery. It’s about going forward with grace, when faced with the unknowable and terrifying. Faith is the holy communion of imagination and hope.
I’m a pagan woo-woo witch-identified skeptic. The founder of my own tradition used to say, “First perceive, then believe.” Of course, his doors of perception were open a little wider than a lot of people’s, and his perception allowed him to believe in fairies, spirits, gods and goddesses, energetic currents, blessings and curses. I’m only beginning to touch some of those things, and even when I perceive them, I’m still not sure I believe.
But I have faith.
Faith is what is left over when inquiry is exhausted, that thing that keeps us going when we Just Don’t Know. Faith is what allows us to turn the proverbial lemons into the equally proverbial lemonade; to keep trying when the damn thing has broken down fifteen times in a row but maybe if we switch these wires or kick it a few more times it’ll start; to wait and wait and wait because maybe this time, the Great Pumpkin will come. (The secret? If you wait long enough without eating or sleeping, he does.)
Faith allows some of you to light things on fire and swing them around your bodies for fun and entertainment, and others of us to look at a bare stage and make it into a world. In fact, faith is what makes most art – and all theatre – operate. For as the prophet Geoffrey Rush once said, “it’s a mystery.”
Faith is what allows a marathoner to get up Heartbreak Hill, a widow to get through her grief, a soldier to make it through the night. It’s what made our ancestors learn to wait for the bread to rise, the crops to grow, the game to return, the rains to stop. It’s the thing that lets us live in the terrifyingly simultaneous way that our human brains make us: one foot in the present, and one in the future.
Faith is what makes you able to love even when your heart has been torn out, stepped on, run over, and left on the side of the road to die. Faith makes you get up, dust your heart off, maybe wall it up a little better than before, but leave a window open a crack, just in case.
Just in case. Because we still imagine. And we still hope. And we still wait for the light.