Wednesday 4 April 2018

For the Birds: 12 Women Making Vigil on the 7th of 7 Sundays in Fern Smith


A vigil, from the Latin ‘vigilia’ meaning wakefulness is a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance.

A vigil may be held on the eve of a religious festival, observed by remaining awake—"watchful"—as a devotional exercise or ritual observance on the eve of a holy day.

Most likely the best-known vigil is the Easter held at night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

During the Middle Ages, a squire on the night before his knighting ceremony was expected to take a cleansing bath, fast, make confession, and then hold an all-night vigil of prayer in the chapel, preparing himself in this manner for life as a knight.

In Christianity, especially the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, a vigil is often held when someone is gravely ill or mourning. Prayers are said and votives are often made. Vigils extend from eventual death to burial, ritualistically to pray for a loved one, but more so their body is never left alone.  
Source: Wikipedia

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

12 Women made Vigil for 7 hours from midnight on 31st March to dawn on Easter Day, April Fool’s Day 2018 at Capel y Graig, Ffwrnes. This represented the final instalment of my ‘7 Sundays in Spring’ durational everyday art piece. On preparing to write my usual reflective blog, another form invited itself. It announced itself as needing to ‘break the form’ of the ones which went before. This reflection comes in the form of a poem comprised of 12 sections, each in honour of one of the 12 women who made Vigil.

1st Woman
The 1st Woman put out the call.
 ‘To express and honour the grief and pain
of the world by holding Vigil
from midnight to first light.’
7 hours in all.

The women came. A hard-love call.
7 the number of this game, of
7 Sundays in Lent,
with ‘all the women I’ve ever met.’

13 Women Making,
16 Women in the Woods,
44 Women Walking,
11 Women Remembering,
13 Women Dancing,

16 Souls invoking Isis
and then a final all-nighter,
from mid-night into Oestre/ Easter Day.

The 7th Sunday cracks open
the well-laid, well-made form.
In Capel y Graig we gather.
12 Women making Vigil from midnight into dawn.
Christ is risen with the April Fool.
Happy Easter / Oestre all.

2nd Woman
This dreaded woman has come to 6 Sundays.
She travels by hook and by crook.
Something is making her, breaking her,
calling her to learn the lost art of grief.

She is gifted with a dark night
of the soul.
This, her first Vigil.
The first for most.
She, 2nd Woman is blessed with a companion.
An unexpected one who needs cradling into death.

A Chaffinch arrives at the door
In the hour before midnight.
It will die, we know.
A visitor come to message us, though only few hear.

2nd Woman hears.
Midnight finds her outside the cold Capel
In the warmth and the light of the vestry fire.
She learns how to Vigil,
becomes mother, mourner, midwife into death
of poor Chaff.
She holds its small body.
Its last hours attended.
Chaff dies at dawn, lasting through the night,
gifting tears, giving meaning, to this time.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

3rd Woman
Woman number 3 is all magic.
This too is her 6th Sunday.
She knows there is weaving going on here.
Something not accessible to the logical mind alone.
She can wait.
She sits cross-legged in her many skirts.
She is made for Vigil.
It’s in her braids and in her bones.

She attends her candle, darkening in
its reflected light.
Back, dancer-straight, all poise and patience.
Then like a she-wolf she stirs.
The transition from still to moving is invisible.
She walks the line between the worlds.
Loops the thread back and forth between the two.
She too is attendant of Chaff.
Knows it has come, like a sacrifice.

She moves in the shadows.
Not dance.
More earth than light,
more root than wings.
She knows how to do this.
She has dug her fingers deep into this place before.
Grief is under her nails.
She kisses and blesses it.

4th Woman
4th Woman comes.
She is a woman of the elements.
She knows her directions.
Her manner soft, though
she carries a sword.

This is her 2nd Sunday.
She has danced in the castle at dawn.
And now presents herself to the midnight hours.
The grandmothers come with her.
She never travels alone.

Always the dance.
She is versed in its language.
Articulate words, articulate body.
Brings a knowing of the hands that
shuffle the tarot and the wisdom,
words and the ways of the old ones.

She moves in the dark.
Certain. A prayer moving through her.
She will not sit in silence.
She sculpts the dark-light, half-light,
candle-lit cold of the night-time hours.

5th Woman
The 5th is no stranger to the Vigil.
Her and death are old friends.
She’s been making peace with grief and sorrow
for years now.
Her presence weights this Vigil.

She brings her gentle strength, made vulnerable
with cold.
She sleeps, she wakes, she sleeps, she wakes,
lullabied with song and sound.

Cocooned in her covers, candle close at hand.
She is the circle’s elder.
Brings with her many lives, many circles of
gathered women.
She brings The Magdalene,
making meaning of Oestre, the Goddess
behind Easter time.

She knows her words by heart:
“To live in this world you must be able
to do three things…”
Surrendering into illness, making Vigil
in the way she needs.
Punctuating silence with coughs and sneeze.
She who connects the women past,
to the women present and knows how to befriend the women
of the future.
Wise in her rites of passage between this world and the next.

Vigil at Dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

6th Woman
6th Woman is new to the circle, though she has
been with us before.
Dancing at dawn in her bed, then not present
but present,
And now present, so present.
She stills the air around her by her presence.

I sense she is no stranger to the Vigil.
She has sat with many during the dark hours.
This woman of the dusk and the caverns of the heart.
A gentlewoman who knows her worth.

She brings with her, the language of
the land.
She can speak to this Capel y Graig,
This chapel of the rock.
She can speak in song, and lights up
the early hours with her voice.

She could sing from the pulpit, was born
with an ability to do so, but
has chosen instead to step away,
to leave this place, vacant and open
Its power in the possibility of potential.

7th Woman
Woman 7 is all animal.
Her 4 legs and long hair might distract from her fierce
sensitivity and strength.
She is a woman who can attend the mystery.
An alchemist of the space between things.
She arrives, always last with her twin other.

She will half-Vigil.
Knows she will be present for the darkness.
Knows she will be gone by first light.
This Vigil is her first of 7 Sundays in Spring.
Though her name has been weaved into all.
She, perhaps the invisible thread or
the needle that pulls it.

She is one of a line of women.
Gives herself as witness of
the beauty and the sorrow.
She is all heart.
She is all brain in her body, animal
in her being, presence
in her absence.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen.

8th Woman
Woman 8 has travelled far, to the East and back,
and beyond.
Host of the first of these 7 Sundays, she knows
she needs to be present for this last.
It almost wasn’t so. It’s always thus.
Almost wasn’t but always is.

She is a woman who can Easter and April Fool,
is happy home with either.
An artist to the core, who gives it
all away.
Nomad, at ease in all places.
She glides through the Vigil in restful sleep
and seeks out another when we’re done.
She’s lived through life and death and makes it her
business to keep on doing so.

She finds her place closest to the pulpit,
dream-sleeping with God.
As at home in a capel as a coffee shop.
Soft presence, gentle snores sculpt the night’s light.

9th Woman
The woman of the three-times-three
is no stranger to Vigil.
She comes, celebrating and mourning the tatters of her soul.
Brings her personal to the planetary sorrows.
Has lived the political life, the examined life.
Restlessly questing in service of Earth.

She was never not going to be here, though
it has cost her much.
Making an art of positive disintegration, she holds
a bright candle through this dark night, sings
her full-heart, full-throat voice.
She is moving, introducing herself
to this new land.
Coming home and being received in a life beyond Vigil.
Knowing the full moon darkness lights the way to the
beginning of all things.

10th Woman
This 10th Woman knows the ropes.
Has come from the borders, but
knows this territory well.
She is ready to Vigil and brings her
Priestess ways.
Anointing, blessing, perfuming the dark.

She has been making Vigil alone
these past 7 Sundays and
will continue to do so once Easter has come and gone.
She brings with her the mythic.
Separates the dark from the light,
the water from the land.
Her hands have weaved oracles
and spun shrouds before now.
She brings with her the weight of silence and mystery.
Though new to our circle, she has been here
many times before.

Vigil at dawn. Photo by Avi Allen

11th Woman
Woman number 11 needed a rest.
Needed to simplify, do less, but
still she came.
She’d felt the pain of life in her belly since she was 12.
And now it rises again, forcing her horizontal.
She is no stranger to witnessing the grief of the world.
Has brought it with her, been welcomed by it
on arrival.
A fierce humour and dark intellect she carries.
It makes her strong. It cracks her open.

She sleeps. Drifts in and out.
Listens to the poems.
Mary Oliver, Rilke, Wendell Berry.
She’s heard them all before.
She has already walked a hundred miles on her knees.
And knows she does not have to be good.
And still she shoulders the pain.
And now she lets it go, surrenders into sleep.
Sleeps so that the wakeful ones have the gift of watching over her.

12th Woman
Woman number 12 – mother, host, nurse, minister and midwife.
She is custodian of the Capel chapel.
Gently guards the space, communing.
Determines what comes in, what needs to be left at the door.
She lights the fire.
Has dreamt Capel into being, or been dreamt into being by it.
Our Vigil is homed here.
Is offered space and chance to nest.
Woman number 12 documents the proceedings.
Makes it her work to be guardian of the little understood, almost invisible,
not yet born, space between things.
She speaks Vigil. It is her art-form.
She mourns the bird.
It breaks her heart.
It has been broken countless times and shall be again.
It is hard to have a practise of the broken heart.
She tends the bird.
Knows the hour of its death.
Lights the candle.
Buries it, returns it to a dawning sky.
Towards the light of Easter/Oestre Day.

This was a Vigil for many things. In the end, it became a Vigil for a small bird who came to us in the hour before we took our places in the Capel.

Vigils extend from eventual death to burial, ritualistically to pray for a loved one, but more so their body is never left alone.

In the past 50 years in Britain, through the intensification of agriculture, we have destroyed well over half of our biodiversity, and the populations of birds, butterflies and wild flowers that once gave the landscape such animation and thrilling life have been utterly devastated – the figures are there. Most notable is the case of farmland birds, which by the government’s own admission declined by 56% between 1970 and 2015; it is estimated this represents a loss of at least 44 million individuals. The Guardian.

Fern Smith is an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Recipient and has just discovered with with the help of a close friend, that she is an 'Experiential Ritual Artist'.

Future work includes:
Practising the Art of Living (co-guiding)

Woman Time (co-guiding)

Vision Quest (assisting guiding May 18 - 27)

For more information see

With thanks and appreciation to Avi Allen and Capel y Graig  for making us welcome. Thanks and respect to Donna, Gilly, Ailsa, Chris, Christine, Jess, Jo, Janne, Lis and Kelli.

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