Magical Missive: How Do You Honor Your Beloved Dead

Ceremony and Ritual

M

iracles, beloved dead

As promised, the next few Lunar Letters will continue a series I call “Magical Missives”. These are letters in which I share specific magic know-how for your pleasure and personal adaption. I know, I’m excited about it too!

For this Magical Missive, it’s only fitting that we work with our Ancestors and the Beloved Dead. After all, autumn is in the air, and we are nearing Dia de Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, as well as the day of Samhain/All Hallows at the end of October, beginning of November.

My goal here is not to overload you with information (we’ve got enough of that, don’t we?) but for you to walk away with a way to frame the work and some super practical ideas you can use to help you cultivate and enrich your relationship to your Beloved Dead.

I have seen quite a few articles advising people on the one true way to honor their Ancestors and/or to build the altars, make the offerings, etc.

The question I always ask and encourage you to ask, is: is this helpful to you? There are about as many ways to honor the Ancestors as there are Ancestors to be honored!

So in this missive I share with you how I do it and how I was taught, and how many locals in my city go about honoring their Ancestors, not as THE ONE TRUE WAY, but as helpful suggestions and enticements to you to get started in what is a wonder-filled deeply personal adventure.

Start Here: Discover and Reflect
So you want to cultivate your relationship with your Beloved Dead. Wait. Hold on. Why in the world would you want to do that?

Here’s why, y’all: your relationship to the Dead, paradoxically, nourishes and vitalizes your relationship to life. For real. If you want more vitality in your life, begin with the ways you are or are not honoring those who have passed away, those Beloved Dead.

If you are like most people who have grown up in the pretty conventional parts of the United States and Canada, you likely won’t even think it is possible, let alone desirable, to have a vibrant and active relationship with the Dead. You probably think building rich and creative altars for the Dead is, well, a little weird, a little morbid. In fact, you likely don’t even think about it at all. Honoring the dead with lovingly created altars is probably not even on your radar, except when we are hard-pressed to do it by necessity. And even then, many of us honor the dead as little as possible, and with as little as we can.

The truth is that honoring our Beloved Dead – as often as possible and with as much joy and love as we can – is a normal and deeply human preoccupation, something people have done in most times and places, all over the world from ancient times down to the present day.

The fact that we do and can relate to our Beloved Dead is one of those universal themes we see repeated again and again. Some of the earliest human habitations feature ritual burials placed lovingly, exactingly, right under where the current generation lived, slept, ate, and raised their children.

Traditions honoring Ancestors can be found in ancient Africa and Asia across the Mediterranean, throughout Europe, and of course in South and Central America as well as Mexico. The conventions around death in much of the U.S. and Canada and some parts of Western Europe are quite simply an aberration (and typically a sanitizing cover-up of more vibrant indigenous traditions that needed to be rooted out for political and religious reasons).

Despite our technological advancement, we seem to be the illiterate brothers and sisters of a wider world of humanity, peoples who are highly literate in the ways of death and honoring the dead.

Now different cultures have different rules and norms when it comes to how you relate to the Dead. The good news is that we can begin to learn again the ways we’ve forgotten and enrich our relationship with our Beloved Dead. But we have to be willing to listen and learn.

We have a great teacher in North America: Mexico and certain parts of the Southwest of the United States. Honoring the Ancestors and celebrating our Beloved Dead has become much more popular in recent years, especially with the release of movies like “The Book of Life” and “Coco.” Those of us who grew up with these traditions typically feel that this newfound popularity is well deserved.

Where I was born and raised, in San Antonio, Dia de Los Muertos is a big deal – the whole city celebrates it. In one area of town, a large community altar brings together people of all walks of life in a colorful a rich celebration of those Beloved Dead. Even if you are not Mexican, South, or Central American or of descent from those countries, you can learn from this tradition about your own relationship to mortality. For it strikes a deeply human chord, and resonates with the heart, with what’s true.

I always advise my students to first begin where they are. Do a little digging into your own background. I am not talking about taking a DNA test – although if you want to, go for it. I am talking about speaking to any living family members you have about death lore and death customs in your family. Maybe all has been forgotten, but maybe not!

You may be surprised to learn that you have more than you think you do. This, in turn, can lead to learning new things about your heritage and lineage deeper than modern memory, and it is a wonderful way to begin the process of honoring your Ancestors before you build a single altar!

Ancestors Alive: Who are the Ancestors?
Before we talk about how to honor your Ancestors let’s talk briefly about who the Ancestors are. Generally speaking, the term Ancestors simply means the ones who came before you and in common usage refers to relatives and family members (typically, but not always, related by blood).

You don’t need to go very far down this road before you discover that you probably have some ancestors that you did not know and did not hear stories about (and therefore have no relationship with) and you may have ancestors that you did not get along with while they were living and you do not want to have a relationship with them.

This is why I break the term of Ancestors up further and talk about our Beloved Dead. Your Beloved Dead are the people related to you through blood (family members) or spirit (the family members that you choose. The Beloved Dead can include well-known or even famous historical figures) that you have a deep relationship with and to. They are the ones you love.

There are more levels of Ancestors you can work with, but for starters, we will just talk about the Beloved Dead – they are the ones you will honor during this time of year and they are the ones who will be represented and nourished at the altar.

And while we are on the subject, let me remind everyone that our pets and animal familiars are also included in the category of our Beloved Dead! It is completely traditional to honor deceased pets and animal companions on the altar and to work with them throughout the year. So do include your wild ones when considering who your Beloved Dead are.

While there are many ways to honor and work with your Beloved Dead during this time of year and throughout the rest of the year, in most cases, the first step is to build them a house so to speak. This house is what we call the altar.

Altars, Altars, Everywhere
The first thing you will want to do before you place a single thing on the altar is deciding who and which Beloved Dead you wish to honor. Yes, you may have only one individual on the altar if that is the only Beloved Dead you have. Yes, you may have lots of individuals on the altar if you have lots of Beloved Dead. A couple of rules of thumb that are useful to keep in mind are:

  1. As I was taught it is inappropriate to honor the Beloved Dead that has not been deceased for at least a year. This means that if your Aunt or your beloved cat died in March or April they would not be included on the altar you build in October. There are exceptions to this and ultimately you have to do what feels right and in alignment for yourself.
  2. It is not appropriate to put the pictures of the living on the altar with images of your Beloved Dead. The exception is babies that have not yet been born (ie, ultrasound pics) may be placed on the altar. It is also customary to put items that belong to the living, especially the living you wish the Ancestors to bless and protect on the altar, just not their actual image. For example, you could have a charm bag that you made for one of your children on your Ancestor Altar but not the picture of the child. Again, consult your own best lights when following these guidelines.
  3. Family members can usually happily share an altar space together. This includes in-laws, so you may include all the Beloved Dead in one place. The exception to this is if there was a serious rift between certain family members. If there was, and you wish to honor both of them then it is a good practice, at least as you begin this work, to give them each their own space.

Keep in mind that the altars and offerings we make for our Ancestors are basically proxy centers for working directly with their graves. It is still typical in many places to go and feast right at the Ancestor’s grave. If you can do that then I highly suggest it. Pick one Beloved Dead to honor each year when you follow this protocol unless you have a bunch of family members buried in the same place in which place you can have a complete fiesta!

With these points in mind, the next thing to do after selecting which of your Beloved Dead you will honor during this season is to decide where you would like to place the altar. When thinking about your altar you mostly just want to have a place where you can set up a picture, candle, glass of water, incense, and a bit of food without having it majorly disturbed. It is quite traditional to place these altars outside and if you have young children or cats that may well be the best choice.

Once you have established where your altar is going to go ahead and cleanse it. You can get directions on that here.

Elements to Include
Once again, you will be the best person to determine what you want your Ancestor Altar to look and feel like but my recommendation is that you start very simple and grow your altar in cooperation and relationship to the Ancestors. The essential elements you will need to include are:

  1. An image or object to represent the Beloved Dead you are working with. Pictures when available are often used but other objects can be as well. For instance, I have the strings from the last guitar my grandfather played as well as his guitar pick on my altar. This is also where the use of sugar skulls comes in to play. The custom is to make (or buy) a sugar skull for each Ancestor you wish to honor. You write the name of the ancestor on the foil strip that is on top of the sugar skull’s head to designate that is is the stand-in for that particular ancestor. This is also why some altars have lots and lots of sugar skulls. Once the Days of the Dead are over you can remove the sugar skulls and set them out around your home where the late autumn rains and snows will melt them into the ground ensuring you have a sweet year ahead.
  2. A candle – any kind of candle works although beeswax is a traditional choice. Nowadays in San Antonio, I mostly see the glass-encased paraffin candles.
  3. Water – a glass or bowl of water is a mainstay on an Ancestor Altar because water is seen as both refreshing to the ancestors and it also creates a barrier between the living and the dead so that nothing gets confused.
  4. Incense – Copal resin is the scent of choice for many of us in the Southwest and Mexico but choose something that is pleasing to you and if possible that has resonance with your Beloved Dead. The presence of incense carries over into the marigold flowers you often see on Dia de Los Muertos altars – these flowers are associated with the dead because they have a pungent and sharp odor that allows the dead to find their way to the altar. For in several traditional understandings our Beloved Dead does not have possession of the senses we do. In fact, the only sense that is left fully intact is their sense of smell which is what they use to find their offerings and places of honor. This is why having a scent is so very important.
  5. Offerings – Offerings for the Dead call upon what they enjoyed in life. Where I live we make a special bread called pan de muerto which is offered, but we also offer up elaborate food: usually I whip up a batch of drinks using my family’s secret margarita recipe, add chips, salsa, cerveza, enchiladas, and tamales. I might make a big pot of chili and I always give my maternal grandfather a can of Big Red as that was one of his favorite indulgences.Offerings of tobacco and alcohol are also common. Some schools of thought encourage such offerings to be left out, but I have found that as long as the individuals being honored did not have a destructive addiction to their favorite substance it is fine to include it on the altar.It is fine to create a small plate of goodies and put that on the altar and then eat the rest of them yourself. A bunch of my family members are buried in a nearby military base so I make their margaritas and serve them up graveside!
  6. Flowers – these can be plastic, paper, fresh or dried. Flowers are not absolutely necessary but they do add a nice touch!

Timing
A very frequently asked question I receive is on the timing of all of this — when does the altar go up? When does the altar get taken down? What are the days when the altar is most active?

And the answer is…it depends. It depends on who your Beloved Dead are and what they want, it depends on your lineage and heritage, your culture, and traditions, and it depends on how you are working with your Beloved Dead.

It also depends, quite practically, on how long it is going to take you to create your altar. If you are working with a lot of ancestors and making lots of offerings then you obviously will want to give yourself more time.

All of that said, there are certain times of the year when it is especially auspicious to connect with your Ancestors. Some of those times are:

October 31st – Halloween/Samhain in some European traditions and it also kicks off the three days celebration known collectively as Dia de Los Muertos. Some folks build their altars on this day. Some choose to begin altar construction a week before, and some choose to build their altars beginning the day after Michaelmas (the Feast of Archangel Michael) on September 29th. There is a lot of Halloween/Samhain folklore out there pertaining to the Dead, probably the best known is the hosting of a Dumb Supper.

November 1st – El Dia de Los Innocentes or the Day of the Children (Innocents) – this is when children who died are especially honored and remembered. The altars are full of toys, sweets, maybe a favorite blanket or stuffed animal during this time. Children lost in miscarriages, stillborn, and aborted children are also traditionally honored during this time. The altar would be up and active by this point in time.

November 2nd – Dia de Los Muertos/Dia de Muertos – Day of the Dead – this is the day when the Beloved Dead who are not children are honored – it is when we cook a lot of food! The altar is up and active at this point.

Once these days of the dead are over some folks take the altar down immediately. Some will leave the altar up past Thanksgiving (here in America) and some will leave the altar up through the Christmas season – which is also strongly associated with ghosts and the Beloved Dead, and take the altar down around Candlemas on February 2nd. Some (like our family) leave the altar up all year round because our relationship to our ancestors is ongoing.

Christmas/Yuletide Season – as previously mentioned, the days around Christmas and especially the Omen Days that follow Christmas are traditional times to make contact with ghosts and our Beloved Dead. Creating an altar during this season and/or refreshing an altar already built is a worthwhile endeavor.

Memorial Day – here in the U.S. the last Monday of the month of May is celebrated as Memorial Day and in the Deep South, it is known as Decoration Day. This is a traditional day when folks come together to clean up the cemeteries where their dead are buried, refresh their flowers and keep up their tombstones. It is also pretty typical for old time cemeteries to have their annual meeting on this day. Although it is in the thick of Spring this is a powerful time to contact your Beloved Dead, build or refresh their altars.

If you are working regularly with your Beloved Dead then the monthly upkeep of the altar is a good idea. You can work with the Dark Moons to clean off the altar and remove anything that does not belong and the Full Moon is a time to connect and commune with your Beloved Dead.

Communion
So, once you have your altar up and have decided to have an ongoing relationship with your Beloved Dead, then what? What do you do?

Traditionally we approach our ancestors the way we approach any Holy Helpers. We thank them for the goods and blessings in our lives and we ask them for whatever we have need of. In the case of our Beloved Dead we also welcome them, we feed them, we tell their stories to the younger generations, and we build an ongoing relationship with them. How do we do this? It depends on you and your family members, and what makes sense for you.

Simply the act of building your Beloved Dead a dedicated altar space and feeding them already lays a solid foundation for the relationship. You can speak to them, cook their favorite foods, play their favorite music, and write them a letter.

You can pray the prayers that they prayed in their honor and make special pilgrimages to the places that mattered to them. If you have household implements you inherited from your ancestors you may use them on a regular basis to further cement the relationship.

When my paternal grandmother passed away I did not receive much, but I did get a collection of the wooden spoons she cooked with (and the woman loved to cook) that I use whenever I cook. I always feel her presence with me during those times. The point is…these are your people, so you will have to decide what the best way of communing with them is.

Magic
Magic is deeply associated with our Ancestors and most of it incorporates divination of some kind. It is commonly believed that our Beloved Dead have the ability to “see” into the future in ways that we cannot. If you want to try your hand at this, here is one Ancestor-Informed Reading How-To I shared several years back.

Another very common way to work magically with our Beloved Dead is to appoint one (or more) of them as special protectors for the living. They typically line up to do this job, especially if they are being asked to protect and keep an eye out on children, ie, the Descendants. Seeking aid from your Beloved Dead in whatever situation needs help and support is also quite par for the course.

Typically this takes the form of making a petition, followed by an offering or a promise. As you work and get to know your Beloved Dead you will find that they will share other magics with you in due course.

However you choose to go about it, I wish you a happy, healthy, vibrant and wise relationship with your own Beloved Dead. Building altars to the Dead can be a fun and creative experience for you and your loved ones, not somber and grim duty. And as one friend from Mexico told me, don’t hold back. Have a party!

xo,
Bri

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

Magical Missive: Gathering Prayers – How to Make a Prayer Bundle, Mojo Bag, or Charm Packet

Alchemy and Magic

M

y first prayer bundle was so simple that it would not be until many years later that I understood what it really was.

This prayer bundle had a single ingredient: the first lock of hair ever cut from my head. The bundle itself was made out of scotch tape, by which I mean that the hair from my head had been sandwiched between two pieces of scotch packing tape. This prayer bundle, then, looked like a little unassuming packet, with a piece of hair caught inside it. Just from the looks of it, you would never know the kind of power it had.

This little packet was carried in the wallet of my maternal grandfather faithfully every day until he suffered a major stroke in 2005.

Years later, through study with teachers in various traditions and learning from my clients who also, blessedly and thankfully, come from many different traditions and walks of life, I was able to see my grandfather’s packet for what it was – not just way to keep a sentimental lock of hair, but a container for power and prayer. I discovered that charms and prayer bundles come in all shapes and sizes and in ways you could never imagine.

I understood that he carried his humble scotch tape packet for protection, for his and my protection, and also to remind himself about the significant life changes he made when I was born. We all need reminding of the pivotal moments of life. In these pivotal moments there dwells a magic force to help us live better lives. This charm packet helped him not only to remember it, but to raise that power of change for himself again and again in times he most needed it. For him it was the power of love, of second chances and a fresh start.

Prayer and blessing, while two of the most common and universally spoken languages in the Sacred Arts, are also languages that can often feel too abstract, too “un-grounded”, like air plants that are missing a true root system.

And this is why, for as long as there have been prayers and people to pray them, there have also been ways to make those prayers physical, to materialize them. This is an act I refer to as prayer gathering.

While there are many ways to gather prayers, the magical object that we are left with at the end of the gathering process is often a special container that holds our prayers and keeps them tied together fast so that they are strong and resilient. Different traditions have different ways of containing prayers, but one of the most common that is found in all of the corners and sides and angles of the world is a bag, pouch, packet of cloth or paper, or satchel of some kind. The names for these special prayer containers vary depending on time, people, and tradition. Some of the most common include: medicine bag, medicine bundle, prayer bag, prayer bundle, mojo bag, mojo hand, gris-gris, charm bag, fetish bag, fetch bag, charm packet, angel packet, magic pouch…and the list goes on.

Just as there are different names for these objects there are different ways of making them and working with them. In some cases, your prayer bundle might be made to be visibly worn, seen by all, a declaration, testimony or even challenge issued by the person wearing it. In other cases the prayer bundles are made to be hidden, worn discretely around the neck or waist or cross-wise upon the body. In some traditions, no one can touch your prayer bundle but you. In other traditions, family members can and often will bump up against each other’s prayer bundles. Some prayer bundles are not worn by people at all but hung on branches of trees or set out on the ground as offerings or burned or hung above the front door. Other prayer bundles are kept close to their person all the days of the life and when the person has died and their body is burned or buried the prayer bundle goes along with them. Some of these little bags are temporary – made for a specific purpose and then released through burial, burning, or disassembly. And in some cases a prayer bundle is not made for a person, but for a space, home, dwelling, sanctuary, or specific ceremony.

When we begin to make our own prayer bundles, the first thing we must realize is that we are working within the parameters of sacred vessel magic. Here magic is ritually contained in a sacred vessel and expressed through various physical objects placed in a container such as a jar, bowl, eggshell, or horn. The container for prayer bundles is of course the pouch or bag and is typically made of cotton, silk, flannel, or leather, and sometimes embellished with embroidery, bead work, sewn charms, or fringe.

When we work under the aegis of sacred vessel magic, we do well to consider this question: how does the situation I am working on need to be held? You can take that question as practically or figuratively as you want, but I do recommend thinking about it and journaling on it prior to creating your prayer bundle. The time and effort you spend reflecting on your life is never wasted. You can go back over your thoughts and writings and find the themes and intentions that will form part or the whole of your petition.

As we turn to making prayer bundles it is useful to understand that they are basically composed of three parts.

1. The vessel – this is the bag, pouch, locket, satchel, or cloth that is going to hold the magical contents. Considerations to keep in mind as you select the right material for this include: whether or not you plan to wear it and if you do plan to wear it, how and where you will wear it. Also consider how permanent or temporary this prayer bundle is meant to be as well as how you want to enliven it or discard of it.

2. Contents – these are the magical ingredients that you are going to include in the prayer bundle and they vary widely from tradition to tradition and also depending on what your purpose is. Typically speaking though the magical ingredients used in a prayer bundle include: botanical or zoological curios, personal concerns, coins or paper bills, petition papers, crystals/minerals, and images of saints, deities, or other holy helpers. Not all of these need to be included in a prayer bundle but they are the general categories to consider.

3. Seal for the bundle – this might be a string tie that is already included in the pouch, a piece of leather or thread that is used to knot up the bundle, flexible beading wire, wax, clay, glue, or as we saw with my grandfather, ordinary tape! The kind of seal you will choose to work with depends in large part on the kind of bundle you are creating as well as the contents within it.

Making your bundle:

Experience has taught me that when it comes to fashioning prayer bundles, unless you are creating very simple ones (such as offering bundles filled with cornmeal or tobacco), you will need to give yourself some time to assemble the materials you have chosen to work with. Maybe you have a well-stocked pantry but chances are you might need to order something in particular for your bundle so this is magic that can be created on the fly, but often rewards a little planning and forethought. Here is the process I follow.

First I gather my materials and lay them out on an altar cloth, which for me most of the time, is either a white or red bandanna (yes I know, fancy!). I take some time with each object I am going to incorporate into my prayer bundle, beginning with the vessel itself. If you are going to augment or alter your prayer bundle in some way – if you are going to fix a charm to it or stamp it then in most cases you will want to go ahead and do that first. This is a ritual act so if you are sewing something to the bundle, beading, creating fringe, etc, you will want to do so in a prayerful frame of mind.

Once you are ready to begin working with each object cultivate calmness. Sit or stand so that you are able to breathe fully and then hold each item in your hands for a few moments. Spinning Gold students of mine who work with woven cords may place one end of the cord on the object and hold the other end of the cord in their hands for a deeper connection. Then, commune with the object. Introduce yourself to it. Tell it what you are hoping to accomplish. Ask if it is willing to assist you in your endeavor. Be aware that sometimes the answer will be no and if that is the case my advice is don’t force the issue. Ask the object what it wants to be called and how you can best take care of it. You will often find that specific objects in your prayer bundles need to be fed from time to time with various substances. Make notes as you go. As you can see this part of the process can take a bit of time, especially if you have more than three items you are adding to the prayer bundle, so it makes sense for this part to be day one of your prayer bundle magic-making.

After connecting to each part of the prayer bundle, gather up all of the materials on the cloth you have laid them out on and hold them in both hands, connecting to the prayer bundle as a whole. Follow the same process of cultivating calmness, discovering if your prayer bundle has a specific name, and learning how your prayer bundle might want to be fed.

Next, if you are including a paper petition in the prayer bundle go ahead and write it out. Anoint it in the corners and center with an anointing oil, saliva, tears, or blood, depending on the purpose of the prayer bundle. If you are including personal concerns like your hair or nails I recommend placing them in the center of the petition paper and then folding it so that they are contained within the paper.

Now it is time to place the objects inside of the bundle. This should be done in a light liminal state. If you are working with any hard objects like coins, crystals, pieces of metal, wood, or roots then you may want to anoint them with a sacred oil, saliva, tears or blood – again, depending on the purpose of the prayer bundle. Begin with the petition paper, next goes any hard, larger, objects, finally if you are adding any dried herbs or powders you can take a piece of paper, put them on it, create a funnel with it and funnel them into the prayer bundle.

Sealing your bundle:

Once you are sure that everything you wish to put into your prayer bundle has been placed within it, it is time to seal the bundle. There are many different traditions on how to do this, but a simple way I seal my bundle is to “breathe in a blessing” on the bundle and keep the purpose for the bundle firmly in my mind and heart as I do so. Then, as I breathe out I exhale that breath into the bundle itself and quickly seal it in whatever way I wish. This breath blesses the bundle with a bit of myself, affirming the connection between me, my purpose, and the sacred object.

Enlivening your bundle:

After the bundle has been sealed it is time to enliven it, to get its spirit stirring and working. Again, traditions vary but I was taught to first anoint the bundle with a bit of anointing oil or my saliva, then hold the bundle in my hands and speak over it, stating my purpose and asking for its aid in free form words. In my experience this part may start out a bit awkward but as it builds in power and purpose the words take on a rhythm and cadence all their own. Of course you can choose to write something out or recite something formally if that is more to your liking. The point is that with words, breath, and body movement – yes, you should be moving your body in some way as you enliven your prayer bundle, you start to wake up the energy in the little bundle and you will feel it flicker in your hands like a candle flame or a tiny bird. At that moment raise the bundle to your heart, to your lips, and finally to your head and conclude your blessing with an “amen” or “may it be so” or “it is done.”

Working with your bundle:

The ways that you will work with your prayer bundle really depend on what purpose the bundle was made for. If this is a long term charm that you plan on wearing then often just wearing the bundle is enough to actively engage with it. You can take that a step further by talking with your bundle – just as you would a lodestone or a plant – or bringing your bundle with you when you do active imagination work. In many cases these long term relationships lead to all kinds of interesting things. I have personally experienced and had clients and students confirm that their prayer bundles have warned them of oncoming danger, provided needed support during times of emotional crisis, and facilitated rapid physical healing – even in instances when those qualities were not originally part of the bundle’s purpose. If you are working with a long term prayer bundle then I find that it is a good idea to cense it in sacred smoke at least once a week and to anoint it with a ritual oil. If you make a habit of doing this on the same day and same time then you will find that the actions carry even more magical weight. Most importantly though, you need to talk to your prayer bundle and find out how it would like you to work with it.

Care and feeding your bundle:

As mentioned above, it is a good idea to feed your prayer bundle with sacred smoke and/or a ritual oil on a weekly basis. This keeps the bundle enlivened and well nourished and, more importantly, it gives you some time to sit and be with your magical talisman, so that your relationship with it can deepen. You will notice after years of working with your prayer bundle that it begins to get a little funky on the outside. This is especially true if it is made of cloth. So it is a good idea to designate one day a year (and perhaps more if you sweat a lot or do manual labor while wearing your bundle) for washing and restoring your prayer bundle. Follow these steps in order to do this.

1. Untie or unseal the prayer bundle. Empty out all of the contents of your prayer bundle. Separate any hard objects like larger roots, coins, crystals, minerals, etc to one side and any dried herbs, personal concerns, and petition papers to the other.

2. Turn your bag inside out and remove any remaining debris. At this point you have a choice to make: do you want to re-use the same bag or do you want to use a new bag? I re-use as much as possible personally. But you have choices. You can choose to re-use the bag as is. You might decide to wash the bag first, you may hand wash it or wash it in the washing machine – I have done both. Just pay attention to any specific cleaning instructions related to the material your bag is made from. You may turn your bag inside out and use it that way or you can cut your bag up and sew part of it into a new prayer bundle. You can also work with an entirely new prayer bundle and if you choose to do this then it is best to burn the old bag and scatter the ashes at a four way crossroads.

3. Take some time to attune to each of the hard items. Re-anoint them with saliva or ritual oil and make sure that they are still willing and able to work with you. If they are not then bury them in your yard or simply give them back to the earth by placing them at the base of a healthy tree.

4. Read over your petition, and keep it in mind as you create a new petition. When you are ready burn the old petition and scatter the ashes at a four way crossroads or bury them in your garden. Do the same with the old personal concerns as you will want to use fresh ones.

5. Sprinkle the old dried herbs and flowers on the ground around your home.

6. Re-make your prayer bundle following the above directions.

Ritually disposing of your bundle:

While some prayer bundles are meant to stay with you until the day you die, others are meant to be disposed of in various ways. Again, the method of ritual disposal depends in large part on the purpose of the bundle, but generally speaking you can offer up the bundle and let the elements and wild creatures take it – this is most usually done by hanging it from a tree. You may burn the bundle and either bury the ashes in your yard, at the base of a health tree, or scatter them at a crossroads. You may also sink your bundle into deep water or bury the bundle whole without burning it. Each method carries a distinct flavor and intention with it, so the best thing to do is think about why you made the bundle in the first place and go from there.

 

 

It is not without reason that prayer bundles and magical containers have been worked with throughout time by our ancestors. They hold and create boundaries for our prayers, wishes, and desires, often strengthening and concentrating them while give us a clear doorway into the Otherworld. May you enjoy making one for yourself!

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

Foundations

T

o go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight,
and find that the dark,
too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
– Wendell Berry

Miracles,

Several years ago at a conference centered around divination, I was approached by a publisher who had heard about the collection of Daily Blessings – a collaborative project between illustrator Cassandra Oswald and myself.

Now the person who approached me worked in acquisitions for a large company that publishes a number of different card decks. They were intrigued by the notion of publishing a deck of blessings that could also be worked with as a divination tool. I knew that many people in my community were waiting for the Daily Blessings to be published because I received (and still do receive) requests every single week for exactly that – so I was game.

Then I showed her a few samples, and I’ll never forget what happened next.

She actually flinched, even cringed.

Her reaction was automatic and visceral. The blessings were great, but the white-on-black artwork was too…how shall we put it? Depressing, dreary, dark – some of the words that she used.

One of the most challenging blessings, as you can see above, is…black itself, without any white at all.

Would I be interested in taking the blessing phrases and working with a different artist in order to make a deck that the company would take to market?

(Depressing? Dreary? Since when has black meant these things…?)

She showed me artwork along the lines of what she was thinking: light pastel watercolors done up in what I think of as the high fantasy artistic tradition.

(Oh. No. no. no.)

I would have loved to say yes. But how could I?

The reaction to the darkness the daily blessings elicited that day has given me much thought. She is a smart woman with her thumb on the pulse of the burgeoning spiritual and “New Age” movements. She knows that the typical charge in our Sacred Arts communities is “love and light” not “love and dark”. She understands that many in our communities refer to themselves as “light workers” who illuminate and dispel darkness and “dark” negativity. She sees how culture, media, and entertainment have taken darkness and blackness and aligned them mostly with the scary and the unknown – sometimes in an exotic and alluring way, but mostly in just a one-dimensional frightening way so that darkness is bad and is meant to be banished or destroyed.

So, when the acquisitions person from the big, impressive, publisher wrinkled her nose at my beautiful black blessings, I knew that this publisher was not the right fit for me, and my response upon being asked to work with a different artist was a simple: “No thank you, I’m not afraid of the dark and neither are my people.”

I could not be interested in ‘using’ another artist for many reasons (as if artists are to be used). I had a working relationship with a talented young artist already for this collaboration, and the artistic style she and I had chosen was not accidental. Her concrete artistic choices have become an integral part of the daily blessings – separating them is unthinkable.

When I first approached Cassie with the idea of the Daily Blessings, I did not have in mind 365 unique and original art pieces. That came from her, as only one with her gifts and unique sensibility could conceive.

But I did have in mind the idea of white images and text on a black background. I wanted us to visually represent the concept of blessings written upon the dark like stars in the night sky. Dark is most essential to those little points of light. Even in an aurora, the darkness supports the luminous.

My love affair with real darkness is one that I come by honestly and it runs in the family. I like to think in truth a love of darkness runs in all families in different ways, shapes and forms. Some of my earliest memories are waking up at my grandparents house when everything was still very dark outside, usually around 3 or 4am. I would creep from my grandmother’s bedroom into my grandfather’s bedroom, because I knew he would be up – and if he wasn’t awake he would be getting up soon, for he was a military man and came from a farming family; and he kept the early morning hours found in both traditions.

Sometimes I would nudge him awake and ask him to play the guitar for me, and he would, in the darkness, play his acoustic guitar and sing me songs – starting with gospel standards, moving into honky-tonk and blues.

Sometimes he would already be up, sitting in the living room; and I would go and join him and sit with him, in the darkness and the quiet. As I’ve written elsewhere, he showed me about black and dark: life-giving, nurturing, and nourishing, and as sources of blessing – not as something to be feared. My mother inherited the same trait and can be found sitting in the darkness, cup of coffee in hand, most mornings, engaged in her own prayers and rituals.

I was the first to go to college in my immediate family. Now the college itself was a unique one; but just being there for me was a culture shock. Another student told me once that he thought I didn’t belong there – because I was strange: I didn’t seem cultured and intellectual, or I was blonde with brown eyes (not blue – imagine!), or I was an outspoken woman (as opposed to…), or – worst of all – I refused to give him money to buy booze for a party (as if I had any to give). But you know, I sometimes feared he was right; maybe I didn’t really belong there.

I had no idea what I was getting into, but college finally worked for me. When papers were due, I would go to bed early-ish, somewhere around 9pm, and get up at 3am – the same hours my grandfather and mother would get up. And then, when the parties were over, the drunks were in bed, the bars were closed, I would stealthily make my way across campus to one of the common rooms where I could write and work without being disturbed.

No one was awake. It was me and the all-black maintenance crew who was headed up by an older man – small, tough and protective – who reminded me very much of my own grandfather.

Being awake before anyone else, in the dark, talking to the janitors, was one of the times in college when I felt most at home and also missed home the most.

Good, black, dirt is an essential medicine in my family. We love to grow things and so we need the humus-rich soil that allows growth to happen. Good, black, coffee has pulled me out of a serious asthma attack on more than one occasion. To me and for me, going into the dark has always been restorative, it cleanses of too much light and too much noise, it allows me to be still, to be (as the Baptist hymn says) just as I am. Darkness calms and soothes.

I know I am not alone. Darkness asks us to rely on senses other than – deeper than – physical sight. Our delicately tuned body comes alive in the darkness in a way that it does not during the day. Paradoxically, it is in the darkness that one is best able to hear ones inner voice, to listen to the ‘Holy Helpers’, whatever they happen to be; to hear the calls and heed them, and thereby to really know and remember one’s own heart.

It is in the dark that I find rest, I find wonder, and fathomless mystery.

I do not think it is coincidental at all that when left to our own devices, all mammals preparing to give birth seek out one thing in common – a dark place in which to labor and bring forth new life.

A few weeks ago we were driving in the car with our little boy, who was chattering about colors – all the ones he liked and did not like. He blithely declared – freely, lightly – that he did not like the color black. We were surprised, and asked him why.

He knew the answer and went on to explain that in movies dark things are always scary and bad. Out of the mouths of babes!

So we asked him to help us think about darkness and black outside of movies – in his own experience, in nature, in people, in stories, in his art work (much of which is dark charcoal on paper), on the piano that he loves to play, on our black kitten, or in the ink mommy and daddy use to write, what about raven feathers found on hikes and dark woods, what about night skies full of stars? What about his darker skinned friends at school and mommy’s dark eyes?

And isn’t there such a thing as being blinded by too much light, of having too much sun?

(Too much light, by the way, is harmful to the health of everyone, as we live in a world that is increasingly saturated with artificial light and darkness itself has become an endangered species.)

He said “oh, yeah!” In his own life, he truly loves the color black, loves darkness, loves night time. It’s everywhere, and in people and creatures that we know and love, and it is not like the movies say it is.

And then he wondered…why then are the dark things so often portrayed as only scary, only fearsome, only bad?

Why, indeed!

Our language and our ways of thinking reflect this back to us every single day. The way we think as Sacred Artists and spiritual people does not match up with our living experience: between the two there is a wide and deep gap.

The challenge of the real dark: we all admit of darkness – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. To deny the dark, the real and blessed dark, pits us against ourselves, against an essential part of who we are. The dark places us directly in front of what we do not know; it places our own ignorance before us, and that is something much easier to run from than to dive into.

To deny the dark is to deny the tough-as-nails problems of life. How could we expect to find a meaningful spirituality that looks away from these problems? Or how could we expect to work on the tough-as-nails problems of life by denying that they even exist?

So why work hard on bridging the gap between our thoughts about and our actual experience of the dark?

The answer has two parts:

It’s probably more comfortable not to do anything, at least for a while. But you know what happens when you put off important things. Eventually, those chickens do come home to roost – and as those of you who have raised chickens know….they can make quite a mess!

No matter how good our intentions, sooner or later, denying the dark – as opposed to accepting what is in our actual experience – comes back to bite us on so many levels, too many to innumerate. It is a wound we keep on perpetuating that cuts and slices into places, ideas, creatures, and people that we love and hold dear; a wound that cuts and slices into us too – for it is not grounded in truth, insight, or wisdom.

The second part of the answer is this. To be true to what is real, to real people and real life…the reward for this direct honesty in thought and life is a magic that is real. That is, it is nothing you have to make up. It will have and hold both light and dark, gravity and grace, as do I, as do you, as do we all.

In this embrace is the real beauty of our lives, and it makes life most worth living. Why accept anything less?

In love and blessings,
Bri

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.