Monday, December 16, 2013

Alchemy of the Church Ladies

So I spent the weekend doing one of the most mundane, yet prevalent actions known to magicians - I was re-enacting the part of a Church Lady.  I cleaned our main altar, freshened up the smaller ones. I did laundry, washing and ironing altar cloths and muschoirs (head scarfs worn for Vodou ceremonies). And in doing so, I touched on an old practice that has a familiar form, but reaches back more centuries than you'd think.

You remember (or maybe not...depends on the faith of your parents, I suppose) Church ladies (never mind the Saturday Night skit by the same name). They were also part of what was called Altar Guilds. These were the older ladies of the parish whose job was to clean the church.  They'd spend all day rubbing down the pews and communion railings with Tung oil and Pledge, laying out immaculate white linens so starched, they stood by itself in crisp pleats and folds. Church ladies were the only other folk, beside the priests, who could touch the chalices and pentacles used in the mass.  They replenished the wine and the communion hosts, an almost sacrilegious act, when you think of it.  I mean, this was the 60s I'm talking about. Women were still covering their heads with veils and girls wore gloves, least some part of their anatomy distract the faithful from prayer! But the Church Ladies reigned supreme.

I loved going in when the Church Ladies were working - the place smelled divine and they were always humming old hymn or prayers. The church was less imposing when they were there. Kind of like being in your grandma's house while she cleaned. Their presence lent a certain sense of family to the place. Of course, the old Monseigneur would bustle in, all self important and shoo them away when he felt they were encroaching on his territory - or getting the kids too interested in things deemed not worthy of a church, like singing songs from "Godspell", (heaven forbid a little Broadway on the altar!). Little did he know the church ladies were what actually drew us in there in the first place. Grey haired, smocking wearing, smelling like powder and lavender, they were less threatening or imposing than the black-clad priests. We felt more at home with "ma'am" than with Father What's-His-Name. My guess is, Father will figure that out when the last of the Church Ladies turns off the lights and locks the door on an empty vault.

The Church Ladies had their beginnings in many practices, some long forgotten. The old alchemists used to work toward that state of perfection in their laboratory work. But then, they also had to work in tandem with women, for only women were deemed worthy of purifying the bottles that ultimately held the elixir of Life and cleaning the athanor (the oven). The most famous alchemist we know of was a Jewish woman named Marie who supposed worked sometime in the early 1400s. A Church Lady, just with another twist.

In British Craft and Ceremonial Magical, it was the old Bitties who worked their magic in circles - Marjorie Mistlethwaite and her Dancer, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki and her Opener, Madeline Montalban and her archangels. All the magic in ancient times was often through the auspices of the Church Ladies. They haven't disappeared altogether,  just transformed themselves into newer forms.

So the next time you're cleaning your altar space or just re-arranging your special objects, remember that you are partaking of an old and time worthy practice - namely, working as a Church Lady. Now hand me the Pledge will you?

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