Martha Stewart, Books of Hours, The Jesus Prayer, And Witchcraft As Habit
In case you haven’t noticed, witches are big these days. I don’t have much to say about the modern fascination with witches that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. But for me, the appeal of witchcraft is that it’s something you can do. I was chatting with someone the other day who characterized witches as the latest supernatural fad, like aliens or zombies or vampires before them, but the difference is, witches are real. You can’t really be a zombie fighter or a superhero or a vampire (though I know some people trying) but you can be a witch, right now.
In our current political climate, when people may feel helpless, lighting a candle or burning some sage feels like something, some small hopeful action beyond just sitting at home scrolling through Twitter. (I might add that all the witchcraft-practicing people I know do a lot of volunteering and donating and political organizing, too — we’re not relying solely on binding spells.)
When I’m anxious about something in the world or in my personal life, I have a lot of nervous energy I have to dissipate by doing something.
Many religions incorporate sacred actions, but the mainstream Episcopal and Methodist churches I attended as a child retained very few of them and the ones we did took place only at church and never at home: lighting a candle in the little side chapel, dipping your fingers in the chalice of holy water in the narthex.
I started seeing my witch, Amanda Yates Garcia, in 2015 when I was almost sparking with nervous energy. I wanted to do something — anything, really — and if some of the things she had me do seemed a bit silly, they were at least better than just pacing around. During our first meeting, she told me to print out a photo and put it inside my right shoe. She told me to drink oatstraw tea every morning, to put bowls of clean water in the corners of my room, to mark my windows and doorways with burning sage. They felt like magic homework assignments and of course I always do my homework so I did all of these things and more (extra credit).
A question I often get is, do you believe these spells really work? With respect to other practitioners of witchcraft with different opinions and experiences, I don’t think spells change the external world. I have had some extraordinary experiences working with Amanda, and some are hard to explain without recourse to the supernatural, but generally I’m more interested in symbolic magic. Putting a magic photo in your shoe doesn’t change the world, but it does change the way you walk through it.
One of the first things Amanda told me to do was to set up an altar at home. An altar, she explained, is a doorway between your thoughts and material reality, a manifestation of consciousness in your very own bedroom. (During a ritual she will say, “The door is open and we are between worlds.”) I went right home and cleared off a West Elm end table and started collecting things: candles and incense and crystals, feathers, pictures of saints and relatives, a cast iron cauldron, my grandmother’s rosary.
Every Monday morning I take everything off my altar, dust it free of pet hair, replace the wilting flowers and fruit, refill the bowl of water that has evaporated into the general magic air of the bedroom. If I’m working on a specific ritual, I add more steps: “feeding” honey to a spell candle, burning little notes in the cauldron, writing sigils, whatever I’ve been assigned to do. Many things are seasonal — I have a lot of autumnal equinox stuff on there now. Everything smells witchy.
I read J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in high school (of course) and learned about the Jesus Prayer. As retold by Franny Glass with her characteristically loopy emphases, a religious pilgrim begins to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
She explains, “If you keep saying that prayer over and over again — you only have to just do it with lips at first — then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing.”
Franny continues enthusing to her uninterested boyfriend Lane, “But the thing is, the marvellous thing is, when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you’re doing. I mean even if you’re terribly embarrassed about the whole thing, it’s perfectly all right . . . All you have to have in the beginning is quantity. Then, later on, it becomes quality by itself.”
Though the merits of the prayer continue to be debated by the titular siblings for another 150 pages, I was immediately in love with it. It felt possible. You can’t decide to be happy, you can’t decide to be wise, but you can decide to do something right now and wait for the happiness and the wisdom to come. Sometimes, you have just enough for something easy, a symbolic action, a simple sentence to repeat, something to transmute nervous energy into the habit of peacefulness.
Despite its mystical trappings, a lot of witchcraft boils down to household errands — tea to make, cauldrons to clean. The altar is a doorway between worlds that needs to be wiped down with a microfiber cloth. As the mother of three young children, most of my life boils down to errands anyway. The trick is in finding ways to sanctify the constant busy work of daily life. If you subscribe to Martha Stewart Living (and you really should), you’ll know that she publishes her calendar at the start of each issue. The monthly calendar is full of gems like “Shoe the carriage horses” and “Wrap boxwoods in burlap” and it’s my favorite part of the magazine. Not because I aspire to own carriage horses (though obviously I do) but because it feels like her own book of hours, turning routine habits into the sublime.
In college I wrote a paper collegiately titled Class Conflict and Conservatism in the Très Riches Heures for a class on medieval domestic arts. The Très Riches Heures is an illuminated book of hours from early 15th-century France, a tremendously beautiful piece of art. The essay begins:
“The Très Riches Heures accomplishes this sense of nostalgia in two important steps. First, as discussed by critic Roger Wieck, the book sanctifies time by enfolding seasonal rituals and pastoral settings into the clerical divisions of time that mark the Church calendar and hours. Then, by locating the traditional scenes of aristocrats and laborers in both a sanctified Church calendar and a natural, seasonal one, the Heures send the message that social stratification is both inherently natural and sanctified by God, thus validating the old sense of order.”
(I know, I know, I was 19.)
I often think about the Très Riches Heures when flipping to Martha’s monthly calendar, and I think of it also when dumping a week’s worth of spent charcoal from my cauldron into the bathroom trashcan. As I once wrote, “The calendar pages of the Très Riches Heures work in two ways at once. They present the Church calendar and the ‘real world’ side by side, holding the two parallel and equal, allowing one to be subsumed in the other. In other words, they ‘secularize’ the Church calendar by showing it to be a part of the natural rhythm of the seasons and they ‘sanctify’ the seasons and labors shown by presenting them alongside feast days and Church holidays.”
The June harvesters with their balletic grace; the March plowman, his face lost in painless concentration, as though he were breathing the Jesus Prayer. Witchcraft turns an end table into a doorway, witchcraft turns the habits of everyday living into a sustained form of prayer.
I’m not a witch. I am a dutiful Episcopalian, a ruminator and an annotator. I will never be free of self-consciousness, of the sense that what I’m doing is silly and flaky and faddish. I will never be be done dusting the place where the two worlds meet. I can’t turn over my whole heart to the Jesus Prayer. I’m still pacing in my head, but at least witchcraft gives me something to do with my hands.