Lughnasadh season

Since writing at Beltaine, and then again at the Summer Solstice, the colours of fire have continued to dominate the photos I have received and the watercolour doodles I have painted.  Hot pinks, oranges, violets rise up, and vermillion and scarlet find their place in this inner glory-blaze.  This year, somehow for the first time, I am beginning to pay attention to these deeply saturated colour-flags, which are startling me with their ‘in your face’ demand that there is a vividness, a vivacity, a vitality in their presence here that I am generally missing, that is currently largely absent from my life and work.  Although I am a ‘light baby’, drawn to its tracking on the landscape within and without, I can no longer bear to sun myself in the way I did when I was younger and higher temperatures only exacerbate my already struggling fatigue levels.  Thus Summer has become my least favourite season, and one I have wished to hurry through in recent years. This year, through these colours that say High Summer to me, I suddenly remembered Lughnasadh, Summer’s Feast Day (August 1st or 6th depending on your tradition) and wondered what marking its colours might teach me. 

The feast of Lughnasadh traditionally marks the first cut of the grain harvests, and the grateful offering up of ‘first fruits’.  It honours Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, conjoined with the Goddess Tailtiu, the Grain Mother, whose legend claims that she was the one to clear the Irish lands so that crops could be planted. 

The Anglo-Saxon folk equivalent was known as Lammas Day, and became the day of the great summer fairs, the literal bringing first fruits to market.  Lammas feasts often cumulated in dances around ceremonial fires, as at Beltaine and the Summer Solstice.  As fans of Thomas Hardy will recognise, the Lammas fairs were also ‘hireling’ fairs, where labour for the coming weeks of full harvest would be found.  The name ‘Lammas’ finds its roots in the Old English ‘loaf-mass’.  At the feast-day Mass a ceremonial loaf of bread baked with the grain from the first sheaf of the harvest would be consecrated, pieces of which was then shared out to each member of the community to eat.  Thus the ‘fruit’ of that community returns to bless them in a very rich circle of life.

Yet Lunasadgh is more than just a traditional folk feast day, it is another cross-quarter day, marking the mid-point between the Summer Solstice  and the Autumn Equinox.  Significantly, the Celts also considered Lunasadgh a harvest season lasting roughly six weeks, and I note how those hot, vivid oranges, pinks and reds of High Summer turn into dusky hues at the edges of a flame.  They haunt the curve round the sides of plums piled in the bowl and deepen into the shades of the blueberries I receive at breakfast, sharpening into the indigo-purpled iridescence of blackberries plucked from bramble hedges under September skies.  They remind me the sun’s wheeling means gentle darkness has well and truly begun its descent.  After all, the opposite side of the season’s wheel is Imbolc and Candlemass, which celebrate the earliest signs of Spring  beginning to emerge from the February gloom.   

Now I come to think of it, perhaps it is not surprising that deep purples become the colours of Advent, that second season of Lent; the colours tendril out in connections.  And aren’t the green-tinged burnt oranges of sunflowers and ripened tomatoes which typify the Lughnasadh season, almost the complementary colours of these blued-purples of deep winter and Advent?  There are patterns here my heart leaps to explore with paintbrush in hand!  As Christine Valters-Paintner comments:

The fullness of summer’s growth has reached its peak and is now starting to wane and you can just begin to see the signs of nature moving toward her own storing up of energies for the journey inward the seasons ahead will invite. 

Just one of the invitations of High Summer then, is the knowledge that the bounty and energy of the Sun/Son is now beginning to wane. It is a time of change and shift. Active growth is slowing down and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.  High Summer can have a bittersweetness that can be savoured.

And this perhaps reflects my deeper marked ambivalence to the pull of Summer: the lingering doubts that I have ‘fruited’ at all in the so-called ‘growing’ season; that I have anything that is worth harvesting and gathering and offering.  In all the celebrations of the seasonal lusciousness of fruit-bearing, in the abundance and proliferation that is at the heart of Lughnasadh, I am also only too aware that some branches might be overladen with unripened fruit, that all there is a heaviness, and I am brought low to the ground.  Perhaps now I’m down here, I can rest from all my labours here then?  And perhaps the key to welcoming the humility of being ‘brought down’, is that I can lighten the load, jettison what is now unwanted and unneeded?  Can I sense that I am being invited not to hoard but to give away all I am, even if, perhaps especially if, I do not believe I have anything to give that another would want to receive.  The Invitation relieves me of the responsibility to judge my own efforts, because Spirit is the One who gathers my harvest as I release it, and Spirit knows exactly where each grain is most needed outside of my ken. 

Perhaps this then is why the fest day of Lunasagdh has been known as the ‘Easter Day’ of the Third Lent?  Christine Valters-Paintner notes that,

In the old Irish monastic tradition, it became a custom to have three Lents. There is the traditional forty days preceding Easter, then the forty days before Christmas (coinciding with Advent) also become a season of Lenten penitence. There was also a summer Lent beginning about three weeks after Pentecost and ending with Lughnasa, so in some ways this feast also becomes a third Easter.

I am being invited to strip myself bare once again, for the good of my soul, and for the good of my community.  Perhaps this too explains the commingling of Lunasadgh season with the Irish Pilgrimage season, that time where good weather might last just long enough to make both an inner and an outer walk to a sacred place, whether mountain or holy well.  And in association with the symbolic jettisoning of all they produced, some Celtic monks embarked on a unique kind of pilgrimage called Peregrinato: ‘setting sail in a boat without rudder or oar, letting the currents of love carry them to the “place of their resurrection.” It is a journey of trust and yielding.’ (Christine Valters-Paintner)

The idea of Irish Pilgrims setting out to scale the the Mountain tops then brings me back to the last set of connections that surround Lunasadgh: it’s ‘coincidence’ with the Feast of Transfiguration on August 6th, the revealing of the ‘true self’ of Christ to his disciples Peter, James and John at the summit of a mountain.  The disciples are given clear sight to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and fleetingly, before they fall to the ground, to look full in the face of his Glory.  I wonder if perhaps rather than the marking the occurrence of Christ’s miraculous ‘quick-change’ moment this summer, it is this miracle of clear sight that I most need to embrace in this Resurrection season?  

The High Summer sun can blanch and bleach objects of their colour, and other ways of seeing are required to receive the revelation of the myriad hues that are presented before me in this moment, day and season.  And I cannot help but smile, that for all my anxieties and fears about what the coming seasonal darkening might bring, inside and out, it is ironic that in High Summer light I often require shaded ways of seeing at this time of the year in order to see the ‘true’ outlines of what shares my consciousness at this time and place.

As so often, my prayer for this season rises up: ‘O Lord, transfigure my seeing’.  

O Lord, give me the Grace to say with the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, ‘I find Your trace in all things, in all’ (Book of Hours).

Published by Kate Kennington Steer

writer, photographer and visual artist

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