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The beauty and tragedy of a beating heart

It is raining again in Vancouver. Cherry blossoms are being washed down the streets, and the temperature is back to autumn. This is quite the change from the gorgeous sunshine and early summer weather that so recently blessed us; I think we all have a kind of spiritual whiplash from the back-and-forth.


Despite the cold and wet, this weekend’s projects include writing the Beltane ritual for my spiritual family. This is one of the things I struggle with as a ritual writer who wants to connect my rituals to what is happening with the season: I have to write the ritual in advance, without really knowing what the season is going to be when it is performed. It is working out this time, though, as the ritual I have in mind is about the heart.


A couple of years ago, I was training at the gym with a very athletic friend of mine. He gave me a lot of fantastic advice, but I remember one conversation in particular. We were discussing why it is important to do frequent cardio and he said:


“You only get so many heart beats. If your heart beats slower, they will last longer.”


There’s a joke about that, of course. A well-meaning seeker asks a monk: “What exercise should I do to live longer?” The monk responds: “Your heart is only good for so many beats, and then it will wear out! Speeding up your heart won’t make you live longer; that’s like saying you can make your car last longer by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap!”


Though exercise does temporarily increase your heart rate, doing it regularly decreases your resting heart rate, resulting in a net savings in heart beats. Which goes to show that you shouldn’t take health advice from jokes… or monks.


Anyway, my friend’s comment stuck in my head, and I’ve been contemplating a heart-themed ritual ever since.


I am fascinated by the connection between heart beats and life. I like the seeming paradox: make your heart beat faster in order to make it beat slower. And there’s a beautiful tension there: our beating hearts keep us alive while counting down to our deaths. So much of the language of a full life is about the heart – her heart felt like it was going to burst, his heart grew three sizes that day, she took that to heart, he took heart in that – while each beat is closer to our last. To me, that tension feels like the same tension we have with Beltane and Samhain – sabbats that are directly opposite on the wheel of the year. One is a celebration of love and life that includes death and the other is a celebration of the dead and the ancestors that embraces life.


On this rainy day that feels like autumn, I am trying to write a Beltane ritual that honours the miracle of our hearts: the real, physical importance, and the metaphorical truths. To that end, here are some random heart facts that get mine racing with inspiration:


The natural length of a lifetime for birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles seems to be about 1 billion heartbeats. Modern humans seem to get about 3 billion. (1 Billion Heartbeats – The length of a lifetime)


A mouse’s heart beats about 500 times a minute and an elephant’s about 28 times. A mouse lives about 4 years and an elephant about 70. (Size Matters: The Hidden Mathematics of Life)


The heart is the first organ to form in utero. The embryonic heart looks the same across nearly all species, including frogs and fish and mice and elephants: a pulsating tube. In humans, that tube will eventually loop to form the four-chambered heart we are most familiar with. (What is a beating embryonic heart?)


The heart symbol evolved from the ivy leaf portrayed by prehistoric potters. “This botanic symbol found in ancient Greek and Roman art … represented both physical and, above all, eternal love, withstanding death. … During the Middle Ages and early modern times, when medicine had a scholastic character, this symbol was used even by anatomists to portray the heart.” (Heart Symbol & Heart Burial: A Cultural History of the Human Heart)


The ritual is still taking shape in my head, but I think there’s a two-parter in the works – one ritual for Beltane and one for Samhain – both playing on the tension between life and death.


Edited to add: The Beltane ritual I created from these ideas is now available on the website: Beltane: The Heart.

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2 Responses to The beauty and tragedy of a beating heart

  1. Cin says:

    🙂 I am sure it will be fantastic.

  2. Pingback:The beauty and tragedy of a beating heart | We're Made of Mud and Magic

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