A few weeks ago, my coven and I celebrated the Wiccan holiday of Samhain. On this holiday that would celebrate bringing in the last of the harvest in times past, we honor the ancestors and beloved dead, and it is also considered the witches’ New Year. During this holiday, our lore says that the veil that separates this world from the afterlife is at it’s thinnest. It is a time where we remember those who have passed, think about what we have done in the last year, and say a wish or a prayer for the future. There are several deities that are tied to death and the afterlife that are called during this season, some of whom I work with as part of my own spiritual practice.
Today, I would tell you a story of The Morrigan. She is a Celtic goddess of battle, strife, a seer of the future, and, a goddess of death. Wiccans do not have a holy book, and much of our tradition is oral, passed down from teacher to student, coven to coven. Some of our lore comes from mythological traditions, but sometimes, the stories come from the deities themselves.
Here is Her story as it came to me during my spiritual work, and this is how I wrote it a few weeks ago:
In a distant time and place, I walk behind The Morrigan as we approach a field. A mist rises around us, but the further into the field we go, I can see that there are bodies everywhere. Armor, blood, gore, chain-mail, swords, and all the other weapons and trappings of war lay scattered. We pick our way through the bodies. There is hardly any noise beyond the moans and groans of wounded and dying soldiers. Even the crows have decided to stay silent as they watch from their perches in the trees.
My stomach wants to rebel, but I swallow hard, and continue to follow Her through the field.
Her Sword gleams as She searches the field. She stops next to the body of a young soldier. He looks at Her. There’s brief flash of fear before She gives him the Mercy blow, but after, his face is peaceful. She lifts his spirit up from his body, kisses him, and he fades to the place beyond the veil.
I stare as we both watch him leave.
I am not sure, exactly, what I feel, but I know that what She did was right. I look at the field stretched out in all directions.
Then I look at Her.
When She turns to me, Her face is a mask, but there are tears in Her Eyes. “Did you think that Mercy and Compassion came without cost?” She says.
I bowed my head. “No. But there are so many!”
“There are always too many.” She says with sorrow.
We continue to walk the field.
When I do divination with tarot cards, sometimes the death card comes up. In my tradition, we say that it doesn’t just represent the physical death: it can also mean a spiritual death.
Sometimes, this is a major spiritual awakening where we have to let go of a part of ourselves that we have held on to for so long that we don’t need anymore. We grieve this loss just as we would any other death, going through the stages of grief as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has described: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, eventually, acceptance.
Sometimes, it isn’t our own spiritual death we are witnessing. Sometimes it is watching the people we love kill themselves slowly through their own actions. We try to help, give advice, or money, or time, but the other person still continues to harm themselves and those around them.
When I sit with the dying at the hospital I volunteer at, I know there is nothing left to be done for them. They are in the final days and hours of their life here on Earth. All I can do is bear witness to their passing and hold their hand. In the end, all we can do is let them go as they take their last breath.
And this is true of spiritual death: sometimes all you can do is let go of that which needs to be let go. Sometimes all you can do is bear witness to someone’s self destruction.
And death always comes at a cost for the living: grief, sadness, loss. It is unavoidable. It is particularly hard when everything that can be done has been done, and all that you can do is watch and pray.
As clergy, we witness all of these forms of death. Death is never an easy topic for people to talk about. Many people deny that death is happening, even in the last moments. There are people who spend their lives trying to fend off death by whatever means necessary, and there are people who seem to seek it out as a way of escape.
We become the witness to all of the ways that humans experience death, both spiritual and physical. We try to reach out, to help as much as we can, but there are times, that even we, with our spiritual knowledge, love, and desire to heal the soul, cannot do anything more than bear witness to the human experience.
And sometimes, though we don’t like to admit it, we also have to be the Morrigan, and give the Mercy blow. Sometimes we are the ones who have to call the police, or the ambulance, or Child Protective Services, or the family of someone who has died.
There are always those who we cannot save. There are always those who we have to let go of. It is a never-ending cycle. There are always too many.
But there is always hope: hope that things will get better, or that the one we had to let go of will find a way out of the darkness, or that the one who has passed is in a better place. We keep working, because the bright light of hope is always somewhere out there, even when life is at it’s darkest.
In the end, we do what we can, and pray, to whatever god we pray to, that we have done right. That the cost was worth the mercy and compassion we tried to give.
And that, through our actions and our witness, we have brought peace and hope to those who need it, even if only for a moment.
For sometimes, that is all we can truly give.
Let us pray:
Spirit of All,
May we have strength in the darkness
when there is nothing left
May we show compassion and love
in grief: both our own and in other’s
May we have wisdom
to show Mercy when it is needed
and may we always have Hope
that life and love will always be found
by those who need it.
In your many Names, I pray