Justine Huxley reflects on a New Year’s Day pilgrimage, shares an experience of ritual, and leaves us with an unanswered question about the source of spiritual regeneration in our times.
This year I celebrated New Year following traditional Japanese practices. I read about these practices many years ago when I was commissioned to compile an interfaith calendar of festivals. The Japanese New Year was always my favourite, and stuck in my mind as a meaningful and appropriate approach to meeting this annual collective ending and beginning. So making creative use of the covid social restrictions, at last I found my opportunity to try it out for myself. The first element was an ‘old year forgetting party’, so I met with a hundred or so dancers on zoom, and danced the old year out of my body. Then I walked to a park on a hill and watched the new year sun gradually rise through the mist in the East, illuminating the city beneath me. Then I returned home and opened every window wide while cleaning and decluttering my home. Finally, I visited all the temples in my area and made prayers and offerings for Divine grace in the coming year. I had a lot of fun in a home alone, introverted kinda way. But new beginnings are not what they used to be. While I watched the fireworks from my balcony at midnight I could only weep and pray – for what we have done to this precious earth – for the blindness with which we continue our path of destruction, even as the pandemic reflects back to us so clearly the danger of the imbalance we have created in our world, and we watch an old civilisation begin to crumble around us. I understand the need for colour and spark to revive our optimism, but the fireworks also seemed hollow, belonging to a world that no longer exists except in the minds of the most die hard deniers.
My pilgrimage to the places of worship in my neighbourhood started with the Hindu temple close to my home, included a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in a converted Methodist chapel, a Shia mosque in a converted synagogue, and took me finally to St Mary’s Church where there is a shrine to the Black Madonna and an ancient holy well. All were closed, so I made my prayers outside in the cold. As I walked the silent streets, noticing some newly boarded up shops and several homeless men gathering cardboard to sleep on, I contemplated the many ways consumerism and our fealty to the dream of economic growth doesn’t just widen the gap between rich and poor and erode our ecosystems, but also is eroding our collective connection to the Divine. This evokes deep sadness in me – and also fear. How much, in the coming decades, will we need to protect the light of every teaching that nourishes the soul or keeps us rooted in the Real, every form of spiritual expression, whether organised religious, free form spirituality, or simply the expression of compassion for each other or reverence for nature. We need this light to help us find our way through these times, to help us be present to the unravelling, to recognise what it can free us from.
Between the forgetting party and the sunrise, I slept for a few hours and dreamed I was walking the route of my pilgrimage with a friend, pointing out the different places of worship. When we came to the Shrine of Our Lady in Willesden, I told her about the holy well. She asked an unexpected question: “What is a holy well?” and then I woke up. So this question also has been with me. What or where are our holy wells? What or where are the real sources of spiritual regeneration to be found? How can we protect those sources, so that there remains something in our world that is pure, that is uncontaminated, untouched by the falsity, greed and distortion that has our culture in its grip? How can we attune ourselves to that pure Source of life, so that its love is woven into the reinventing of our world?
What and where are the holy wells of our time?
Join us for events related to these themes:
Spiritual Ecology Book Club event: The Handbook for Survivalists
Resilience and renewal in uncertain times: A retreat in daily life
Journey of Hope leadership programme for peace-makers