Grieving through Lammas

It’s August already. Hard to believe, honestly. Last year at this time, I was climbing a mist-covered South Barrule on the Isle of Man. I sat atop its peak surrounded by the old hill fort, sheltered from the wind by the low circle of stones that enclosed the central marker. I thought of Lugh and the heroes of the harvest; I reflected on sacrifice and my connection with those who had walked these paths before me. There was a peace and a spiritual calm about the world and my place in it. As I descended the hill, the mist cleared, the wind stalled, and the sun broke through the clouds. Something smiled upon me that morn.

Fast forward a year, and I have been living in quarantine for the past four months. I have touched hopelessness and have survived being actively suicidal. Around me the world has erupted into political and ideological chaos as humans confront one of their oldest and worst enemies: fear. I wonder, where is that “Something” that smiled upon me on South Barrule? Where is that relief after the cold, misty wind that buffeted my climb? Where is this Lammas-tide celebration to warm the heart and lighten the spirit? For me this year, Lammas isn’t about the gathering of friends or the coven; it isn’t about the celebration of fruits; it’s about something deeper and older, something often forgotten: mourning.

An older Irish name for the beginning of autumn—that is, the beginning of our modern month of August—was Brón Trogain, or the sorrow of the earth, as “it is then the earth sorrows under its fruit.”[1] While the community rejoices over the bounty of the first harvest of the season, with the tastes of fresh bread and flowing wine, the earth feels the pangs of loss. She must endure the sacrifice of her offspring, the crops of the land, so that life can go on. She smiles a sad smile, knowing life continues but comes at a cost.

We are reminded again of this in Irish mythology when Tailtiu, the foster-mother of the god Lugh—for whom Lughnasadh is named—dies after clearing the plain Breg Mag:

Her heart burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest; not wholesome, truly, is a face like the coal, for the sake of woods or pride of timber.

Long was the sorrow, long the weariness of Tailtiu, in sickness after heavy toil; the men of the island of Erin to whom she was in bondage came to receive her last behest.

She told them in her sickness (feeble she was but not speechless) that they should hold funeral games to lament her—zealous the deed.

About the Calends of August she died, on a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug; round her grave from that Monday forth is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.[2]

Tailtiu gave her life so that the earth may be fertile. She sacrificed her heart so that her people could thrive. Ireland grieved her and they remembered that grief in the celebration of the Teltown Fair.

Grief is an integral part of the harvest, and it is an important current during Lammas. But why, and how, do we celebrate our grief? How do we appreciate mourning?

Ecclesiastes reminds the reader that there is a time for everything: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Ecc 3:1-2). Everything has its natural life cycle. Nature teaches us the same thing: A fruit left on the vine will rot; wheat left uncut will spill; animals left unbutchered will succumb to disease and age. At the harvest, we pluck crops at their ripest from the earth. We take them in their fullest season, knowing that if they are not sacrificed at that moment, they will sour and spoil. And so we celebrate the fulfillment of our labor, but in doing so, we also mourn the loss of the growth that has been and won’t be any longer.

This Lammas, it is to this second theme that I am drawn, this theme of loss, sacrifice, and grief. Chaplaincy has taught me that all behaviors we have developed originally for a single purpose: to ensure our survival. Some of these behaviors, these habits, remain for our entire lives; others are temporary, helping usher us through a particular time of change. Sometimes, we hold on to our behaviors even after they are no longer beneficial; we become afraid to let go. This causes us distress. We are living with maladaptations—what once kept us alive has now become overripe and has started to decay. We must let go, embrace the fear of the unknown, and trust in the process of grief and healing to move on.

So this Lammas, I celebrate the many fruits I have cultivated in my life: my career, my friendships, my Priesthood, my dance, my habits. I reflect on which of these are still serving me: which are still ripening, which are ripe to be cut, which require pruning, and which have already soured on the vine? I take time to name and recognize all of the fruits that have come ripe (or overripe), and I celebrate their place in my life. I celebrate that each of these has allowed to me survive, and to thrive, at some point in my life. And in that celebration, I give space to mourn and to grieve. Some of what has once served me is no longer ripening; it is no longer healthy. And I reminisce, I cry, I mourn for that—much as the Earth weeps for the bounty that is taken from her. Yet I know that in this grief, I appreciate the fullness of my life and all that has made it what it is. I know that I create fertile room for new opportunities and new love. And, I know that I am both the crop and the Earth, the harvest and the field: I sacrifice myself to myself in an act of perfect and ultimate Love.

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