Our spinning Mother Earth’s rhythmic breathing responds to the cosmos in which she dwells. And we live within her breathing, her seasons and tides, her darkness and light, her polarities. European Australians recently transplanted – in the earth’s timescale – into the south celebrate northern festivals minus their innate connections. Meanwhile the northern rhythm still pumps quietly in the collective unconscious.
From my early twenties, I lived in England and during those eleven years the seasonal festivals emerged to the surface of my psyche. I loved the way their appearance aligned with nature's changing patterns of winter, spring, summer and autumn.
One year, on the first day of November I climbed Mont Saint-Michel, a rocky outcrop off the Normandy coast in France, long a site of pilgrimage. This day is called All Saints Day, and is also Samain, one of the four ancient Celtic festivals that took place in between the sun’s solstices and equinoxes.
Samain (modern Samhain) stood halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It marked the turning of the year between the death of summer and the birth of winter. The harvest was done, and the herds were brought in to be culled. It was time for assembly and for sacrifices and feasting. It was also a liminal time when the barrier opened between this world and the other world of spirits and the old ones. This could be dangerous; an unprepared person could cross over the threshold from ordinary time, never to return.
On Samain eve in Ireland great bonfires were lit on hilltops across the land. They flamed up in preparation for the ritual marriage between the High King and Maeve the goddess of sovereignty at the sacred hill of Tara, now a significant heritage site in County Meath. The prevalence of light on high vantage points reassured everyone that the coming darkness would be overcome. Offerings of food placated mischievous fairy folk and soothed any souls of the dead that drew near. When our ancestors marked Samain with fire and light, they understood the relationship between the earth and this other realm.
The potency of Samain didn’t disappear after the church leaders turned November 1 into All Saints Day to honour martyrs, while the night before became All Hallows Eve and the day after, All Souls Day, became an opportunity to pray for all those who had passed on. These three days were still seen as openings, when the living could communicate with the dead and departed souls walked the earth. In the secular festival Halloween, derived from All Hallows Eve, ghostly echoes linger in the Jack-o’-lanterns, trick-or-treating, and witches and face-painted ghouls partying in pubs adorned with spider webs.
The cosmic reality of festivals
There is a profound secret to the festivals marking the rhythms of the year, wherever they are celebrated and from whatever culture. All belong to the heavens as much as the earth, and to the soul as much as the body. On these levels, they are not tied to earth’s varied physical changes and hemispheres. They are cosmic events and as our beautiful blue sphere is a unity, so diverse festivals speak of one reality.
High places with their expansive views, have always represented higher consciousness attuned to non-physical realms. The rocky islet of Mont Saint-Michel is named for archangel Michael, one of many high places in his name. Michael’s festival day is on September 29, although the season continues until Advent on December 1. Samain/All Saints lies at the centre of this two-month traverse and as such marks the point of strongest connection with the worlds beyond.
In the human soul, archangels represent the higher self. Michael is the archangel of courage in whose light we see beyond a world divided by race, belief and culture, raising our consciousness to the universal abode of love.
The Book of Revelation depicts Michael and the dragon at war in heaven, along with their accompanying angels. The October meteor showers in the constellation Draco the Dragon are said to be stars swept down to earth by the dragon’s long tail. Michael was the victor, but the dragon was not slain, ‘… the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth.’ (Rev. 12:9, my italics).
The dragon is a complex and seemingly contradictory creature due to its presence in so many different myths. It may be a wisdom figure, a riddle-maker, a treasure hoarder, or an instinctive primal force vital for the earth and creation itself. We encounter much of this complexity when we explore the powerful dragon energy active in the human psyche. Myths take on personal relevance and meaning there.
Behind the Revelation story is an image of the primal dragon entering the earth realm, and into human souls. In us the dragon consists of those powerful negative urges rising unbidden from the unconscious. Smothering these like a dragon spread over its hoard isn’t helpful. The wise dragon of Chinese legend moves along the earth’s lines of power. It shapes the land and has mastery over typhoon, flood and earthquake. We disregard this force to our detriment. So too we need to understand the perverse trickster nature of these uprisings from our lower self. When we find the courage to face our damaging impulses, and in the light of consciousness transform them, we achieve this through love, not destruction. It’s a creative process. This is the inner work symbolised by archangel Michael.
On the Mount
Mont Saint-Michel’s first church was founded in 708 by Aubert Bishop of Avranches after he had a vision of the archangel. To reach the isle now there’s a causeway. Once it was only accessible by crossing the sand on foot at low tide – a dangerous undertaking for pilgrims. There were treacherous quicksands to navigate and, if you didn’t know the tides, the fast-moving waters might race in upon you, sweeping you away. As I walked, safely timed, towards the monument my thoughts turned to the dangers of those devilish impulses that too often sweep over us like a running tide.
When you reach the medieval village at the base of the mount you have to pass through streets packed with tourist shops and cafes. It is noisy, dirty and crowded. I think it would have been just like that in the middle ages too, even though the things for sale would have been bones and slivers of wood from the cross rather than overpriced tiny Mounts in an artificial snowstorm and plastic Michael figurines. In the mercenary chaos and clutter I had a vivid picture of our lower nature.
I climbed upward to the abbey. Its cloister was the epitome of monastic stillness. But the wind strengthened around the lofty abbey church topped with a golden figure of Michael. It is called Le Merveille (which indeed it is). Inside, this abbey is light-filled and airy. I attended a beautiful open service there. The celebrants, including females, were dressed in white, their exquisite singing (for they sung a mass) soared among the arches. I felt myself extending through the space. This is what such pristine music can do; it frees your spirit from the dense physical for a while. Then in the midst of the service there was a time of complete quiet and stillness for meditation. In the silence, the experience of the service could be distilled in the heart. It engendered a clarity of mind, very much in the moment, peaceful, and beyond emotion. I think it was an intimation of the Michael consciousness.
Archangel Michael shines a light into the future for humanity. He holds the sword of the purified will. He wears the breastplate of the strong heart. On his head is the crown of enlightened thinking. We do need to develop these attributes. He also carries scales, a sign that every choice we make is weighed by spirit as we strive towards a new consciousness. It’s a consciousness free from our bondage to the limiting aspects of self, awakening in each of us knowledge of who we are and who we can be.
Archangel Michael, called the face of Christ, is traditionally a guide and protector who prepares people for their passing into the afterlife. In our contemporary world death challenges us. We have lost touch with the spiritual worlds beyond its portal, and with the mysteries of our own death. Yet it is never an ending. There is only continuity.
Under the great abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is a tiny eleventh century Carolingian chapel, Notre Dame Sous Terre (Our Lady Underground). It stands on the exact spot where the founder first received his revelation of archangel Michael that gave rise to a Christian temple honouring souls as they journeyed beyond the gates of death. Yet for the monks this womb-like chapel was the most sacred place on the island. We are soon to mark season of holy birth, which is heralded by Advent, and I will write next about another Notre Dame, dedicated to the sacred feminine and the mystery of birth.