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Q&A with Patricia Montley

Patricia Montley published In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth in 2005.

How did you conceive of In Nature’s Honor?
In my Catholic childhood, I developed a passion for ritual. In my feminist middle age, I explored goddess religions and developed an earth-centered spirituality. This book seemed a good marriage.

How did you set about to do the enormous amount of research it must have entailed?
I made it up.

Okay, just kidding.

I used the Internet to research topics directly and also to check the holdings of various academic and public libraries, from which I then borrowed relevant books. But more exciting were “pilgrimages” to the megalithic seasonal markers at Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Oh, I felt very “scholarly” visiting the National Library of Ireland in Dublin to read about Imbolc and Brigid. But sometimes just doing touristy things brought valuable surprises—as when I discovered a huge beribboned Maypole in front of a church in bustling Vienna and a burning-in-effigy of the goddess of winter at a playful spring welcoming in a village near Bratislava.

Do you regularly celebrate any of the rituals you detailed in the book?
I conduct the Winter Solstice ritual each year at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, and have also been part of Fall Equinox, Imbolc, and Samhain celebrations there. I’ve conducted rituals for small groups in more intimate (retreat, bookstore, home) settings.

What is your favorite ritual to honor the autumn?
At the Equinox everyone on earth experiences the same number of hours of light and darkness. This common experience can remind us that despite our differences in culture, we all share the same glorious nature world. So I like to light seven candles—one for the people on each continent, and then an eighth one for peace among us all, and sing “We Would Be One.”

Have you learned anything about how people are using your book since its publication?
A number of people have told me they use it in a private setting—as quiet reading to put them in the spirit of the season, or to read aloud before a meal celebrating one of the seasonal markers, or even to try one of the seasonal recipes. Also, I think a number of Unitarian congregations have incorporated some of the material into services.

Tell us something we might not know about the celebration of autumn, the harvest and the equinox.
For the ancient Greeks, the autumn festival was dedicated to Demeter, goddess of the earth’s fruits. Her Mysteries at Eleusis were celebrated for two thousand years—until the Christian Emperor Theodosius I suppressed them in the 4th century. At this celebration, initiates into the Mysteries underwent a ritual purification, relived Persephone’s descent into the Underworld, and experienced an “epiphany” when viewing a single ear of grain held on high in silence. The initiates were sworn to secrecy about the nature of the ritual, but the great tragic playwright Sophocles insisted that “for them alone there is life; for the others, all is misery.” Perhaps the ritual enabled them to better understand and accept their own mortality and the mystery of the cycle of life.

Are you working on anything now?
After finishing In Nature’s Honor, I returned to writing plays, and since then have had productions in New York, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Ft. Lauderdale, and San Diego.

Could you give an example of something you would add to a second edition of In Nature’s Honor?
A Blessing of the Babes in the Winter Solstice ritual. This has been quite popular at First U of Baltimore.

What would you say to anyone who does not practice the rituals outlined in your book to encourage them to do so?
Ritual affects the way we live our daily lives. If we ritually celebrate the harvest and thus grow more mindful of the sources and importance of our food, is not the next step to become more healthful and less wasteful in our eating habits, more informed of our government’s policies on the exportation of food, more invested in eliminating hunger in our own and other countries?

If we ritually acknowledge the Spring Equinox, and celebrate in myth and music the many vegetation gods who died and were buried in the earth as seeds—only to rise as fruit and flower and grain, will we not be more patient with the cycles of death and resurrection in our own lives? Will we not be more considerate of others who are mourning for losses of all kinds? Will we not better appreciate the vernal revival of nature? Will we not better understand there is a time to plant and a time to pull up, a time to be born and a time to die? This is the true power of ritual.

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Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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