That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

Winter Solstice New Moon

Do you feel the energy of the new moon on top of the winter solstice? Darkest, longest night of the year, just before the sun comes back. The earth calls to me to shed anything that is no longer serving me.

To dance it off.

Cry it off.

Bleed it off.

This isn’t a call to leave behind so much as it is a call to go deeper.

It’s as if the universe is saying, “You are done with this layer; release it into me. Now, let’s look at the next.”

May your solstice be blessed and beautiful.

 

 

Even the Darkest Night Still Has Light

In the summer, I take the sun for granted. I trust that its light and warmth will be there to drive away the shadows. I bask in the energy and vibrancy of the natural life I see around me.

But in winter, the darkness dominates.

I don’t usually mind the dark. My Goddesses are associated with the moon, and I have often found a deep sense of connection to myself and to their energy at night. Meditation and yoga under the stars is nothing short of transcendental for me.

However, there’s a different side to darkness. It’s the darkness of descending into the underworld. The darkness of shadows slinking forward, of monsters coming to visit, and of the judgment of a psychopathic god. It’s the darkness of my childhood, when the boogeyman existed and went by the name of my god.

It’s been five years since I left the cult, and approximately three since I left Christianity altogether. Yet I’ve developed a new (or probably more accurately, an old) fear of the dark. It crept into my heart as the days grew shorter this year. The connection and peace that I had come to associate with the night disappeared as my fears returned—the fears that “like a thief in the night” and “in the blink of an eye” life and love would be taken.

In the past, my underworld journeys have been somewhat deliberate . . . or at least identified, but this time, I only became aware that I was in the bowels of my psyche when I was standing, stripped and naked, before my Ereshkigal.

She was me. I was a child again, anxiously watching the clock grow later, praying that I would be reunited with my loved ones—that they hadn’t disappeared. I was a four year old afraid to close my eyes because I might die in my sleep and wake up in hell. I was a preteen, seeking out the company of others, not because I longed for company, but because I needed to know that humanity still existed. I was a teen listening for the sound of breathing still coming from my parents’ room so that I knew I hadn’t been left behind in the Rapture.

How appropriate that just before the longest night of the year, I find myself face to face with a fear so deep that it goes beyond my earliest memories and survives even my unbelief. I might as well be looking under my bed for Krampus for all the sense it makes to believe that the world is going to end with a trumpet blast and dead people will float up to heaven.

Yet here I am, afraid of being left behind.

But this is what I love about goddess spirituality—the underworld is not where I go after I’ve been damned by a vindictive deity; it’s where I go to find myself again. . . and this time, to rescue myself from that vindictive deity. Jehovah may throw me into the fiery pit where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, but that’s okay. Inanna is there to remind me, as Rilke said, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

And when I look at my Underworld with that perspective, I find that there are no demons down there, just a frightened little girl who is tired of being forgotten in the darkness–scary only because I’ve been taught to fear her pain.

How equally appropriate then that as the physical light gets ready to grow again, I awake to find that it’s time to begin my upward journey back into myself, this time not leaving the shadow goddess behind but carrying her with me up into the world above, a world of sunlight . . . a world of a different kind of night—one where the light doesn’t completely leave but lingers in the stars and moon.