One of the things that I like about my current spiritual practice, such as it is, is the ability to do things which are functional in origin but ontological upon reflection. Yesterday was the festival of Vesta’s Cleansing, and in ancient Rome it was a day for cleaning out the ashes from the fire-pit in the temple of Vesta, who was the keeper of the national hearth of the Roman republic. Tomorrow is the actual feast of Vesta, when the fire would have been re-kindled in her temple after two days of cleaning. (Here’s a link to some information about Vesta, for those who don’t know much) In essence, Vesta watched over the home fire of the Romans, and most Romans re-lit their home hearth using tapers from this central fire in the Forum during the festival of Vest’s Opening, which occurs next Friday.
So, yesterday I read my Hymn of Vesta’s Cleansing,
Farewell, flame, and ashes of what once was —
with sweat and prayer, the sacred make new.
Divinity begins with what one does,
and you only, Vesta, are good and true:
watching over and blessing house and hearth,
keeping the sparks of our families alive,
and seeking always the peaceable home.
In your governance are kitchen and garth;
you cause both garden and children to thrive,
and watch our shrines as you watched over Rome.
In our minds, the white-robed priestesses go
altar to altar with brush, rag and broom,
sweeping year-old coals into Tiber’s flow,
and washing marble in each sacred room
where xoanons of divinity stood.
Dust billowed out from each citizen’s door
as mortals renewed their compacts with flame:
“Bring us another year of fire’s good,
a year of feasts, and bounty set in store
against both famine and creditor’s claim!”
With each ancestral image repainted,
with wall re-plastered and courtyards scrubbed clean,
bed linens laundered and gardens weeded,
the house — the whole city — starts to gleam.
At sunset, cool darkness pervades each street
except from one gate, where glowing embers
struck in secret, embark to seek each height,
as carried by Vestals with clean, bare feet.
Even Jove, in Olympian slumbers,
wakes to give thanks for fire in the night.
and then today I stripped my altars. There are two altars in the house, and both of them tend to get cluttered during the year as I load them up with symbols of what I’m doing and what I’m thinking. But here in June, after all the students have gone, I strip both altars bare. They get washed, and cleaned, and polished, and made ready again.
Today, before I leave the house, I’ll kindle fire on the bedroom altar, and light incense on both of them, but in “empty space”, so to speak, to ready them for resetting over the course of next week. Then next Friday, I’ll get them re-energized and re-set for next year. When I did this last year, I just emptied the altar, and then put everything back.
This year, my goal is to give things away from the altar, in the sense that when I give things away, I’m helping to create community. I can’t help you rekindle the home fires with fire lit from my altar, as in ancient Rome — but maybe I can offer you something from the altar, as a way of connecting your sacred space to mine. So I’ll be setting aside some stuff from my altars this year to give away, and maybe you’ll do the same.
Therefore, if you’d like something from my altar, please leave a comment, and I’ll save you something. Likewise, if you decide you’re going to strip your own altars or place-of-honor in your house this week, and re-set for next week using these poems, please let me know.
Here’s the hymn for tomorrow’s Feast of Vesta (and I’ll post the hymn for Vesta’s Opening, for next Friday, if there’s any interest):
Hail to thee, Vesta, tender of the flame
that warms my family and welcomes my guests,
who guards my hearth fire and holds it tame,
who shields from famine and keeps away pests.
Once thy sanctuary stood in glory
right alongside the Roman Sacred Way,
whose hearth-fire lit a thousand years.
Only a few now recall your story;
fewer still dance on your festival day
or think to kindle your sacred fires.
You gave up your throne on Olympus height
to take a plain stool by the divine hearth.
You gave the highest gods both heat and light.
When they raged loudly, you smiled in mirth,
for to Prometheus you gave the wink,
turned a blind eye to his gift of fire
to suffering Man huddled in the cold.
You gave such grace to mortals by that blink,
taught us to tend and nurture that pyre,
for cooking our food and smelting our gold.
To sing thy praises, we raise our voices,
and ask thy blessings on our hearth and home.
Fill our houses with thy special graces,
and tend us as you tended ancient Rome.
Though thy rotunda now in ruin stands,
and thy eternal flame is ash and dust,
we give thee such honor as flame commands
and eat of these cooked foods that we love best,
giving to thee a portion of our love
to guard our homes here, as you do above.