I was sitting at tea with another priestess one fine spring afternoon, and after we set the tea to steeping, she pulled a small leather-bound book out of her shoulder-bag and suggested that I have a look through it. The book had no title on its front, just the age-worn patina of soft green leather. She caught my puzzled look and said to me, “It’s my breviary, dear.”
Now, ‘breviary’ is a term I’d only previously heard in my Anglican days (high church, candles and incense and even the odd bit of Latin); in Anglican and Catholic practice, a breviary is a small prayer-book which contains the specified rites for each day of the liturgical year, plus a variety of common and specific prayers for various purposes. The form of the breviary is more the choice of its authors or compilers: there are many different sorts of breviaries that one could buy, or one could even make it for oneself (which is what they used to do before the invention of the printing-press). The breviary is not quite the same thing as the Book of Common Prayer, but it contains some of the same prayers.
What my dear friend had given me to read was her own breviary of witcheries: prayers, short devotions, basic magical and practical recipes. Its contents included a few basic items drawn from religious sources, but most of it was of her own devising or collection from various worldly sources, of short writings that would be useful to a priestess on the go. Imagine, if you will, the benefits of being able to go out in the world without lugging a large book along with you.
Her breviary was ring-bound: about 10 by 18 centimetres, with six little rings down the middle, so that pages could be added and subtracted as desired. Think of the commercial Day-Timer or Filofax books, that’s the size and shape of it. The pages within her breviary were not the fancy and expensive pre-printed sort, but instead they were lined or blank refill pages of the sort that can be found in the cheaper sections of a stationer’s shop.
She had made several cardboard dividers for her breviary, so that the pages might be arranged according to basic subject matter. I can’t remember what her divisions were, but I will share mine with you in order of appearance:
A clear plastic fly-leaf in the front. Behind this are some pages of general or frequent use, and a supply of blank note-paper; here also goes a calendar for last year, this year and next year, plus a table of Moon phases and other planetary movements that might be handy to remember; here also is a table of solar and lunar eclipses, and of times when the visible planets may be closely-aligned within the night sky; as well, for more practical purposes I have a small map of the City’s subway and railway system, a listing of airline-reservation phone numbers, and details of my own health insurance, doctor’s contact information, and the phone number for a couple of priestesses who I would wish to have consulted by my doctor if I became gravely ill.
The Circle (red tab): Here are notes concerning the different sorts of sacred Circle which I, or someone with me, might wish to enter; here also is a longish excerpt from my own diary, concerning a religious event in my life which was so profoundly-transformative that I would like to be able to reflect upon some of its specifics in Circle at times; also are some short prayers, blessings and praise poems;
The Moon (orange tab): Notes concerning things that might be done at various times in the Moon’s passage; I suppose that the lunar phases and eclipse tables could have gone here, too, but I found it handier to keep them up front;
The Year (yellow tab): Notes concerning things which might be done to follow the Year’s turning, including blessings and prayers shared with me by other priestesses from various countries;
The Land (green tab): Notes dealing with various sacred places, to which I occasionally travel; this includes snippets of road-maps to help me find my way to public spaces such as Columcille Sanctuary; here also is a set of eight guided meditations given to me by my elders, which I have found to be worthy of reading from time to time;
The Lady (blue tab): Prayers and poems dealing with our Goddess, and the work that She may request of her priestesses; this includes a devotion written by one of my own honoured elders on the day after her initiation, as well as a set of personal devotions that came to me, and which have stood the test of time as my personal equivalents of ‘battery chargers’; there are also prayers by Elinor Wylie, W.B. Yeats, and by the English romantic poet Algernon Charles Swinburne;
The Lord (brown tab): Prayers and poems dealing with the our God, and the work that He might require of his priestesses; some of these matters also call for the labours of his priests, but that’s not the primary focus of my book;
The Law (golden tab): Ground rules, requirements, and darned good advice which has been passed onward by my elders, including a set of questions to be asked and answered when conflict strikes a coven; here also are texts of rites for engagements, marriages, separations, divorces, coming-of-age, child-blessings, elderings and funerals.
In the back of the book (behind the veil): Behind a thin leaf of sheer cloth woven with silver stars, are texts that are more private in their nature, or more challenging to me. I confess that not everything given to me is equally easy for my heart to handle, so some of it gets to stay in that private place, where I know that I can read and think on it when I feel up to so doing.
Building your own breviary
Some of these items, such as the Circle texts and various prayers of offering and approach, are the sorts of things that a working priestess should have memorised, so that she need not lug a book around the altar with her. In my experience of writing-out and typing-out the pages, and particularly in the correcting of my copying-errors, I found that I had rather painlessly committed the texts to memory, including certain texts which many of us find difficult to fluently recall.
It is utterly up to you to work out what you want or need in your breviary; if you desire, you might discuss mutual needs with a partner or colleague. A good starting-point would be the altar-book of your own path (if such a thing exists), or a book of published devotions. Chances are that much of the content within your breviary will come from those short snippets and bits of text which are worth remembering, or being able to pass onward to others whom you might meet.
Assembling the book does not need to be a costly exercise. I look through thrift-stores and quite often snaffle up any little binders that might serve the purpose, at a fraction of their original price. They make lovely gifts, after all. Late in the autumn, once all the students and teachers have migrated back to school, little day-books can be had cheaply from the knock-down table at stationers’ shops.
Besides the cloth divider, I have sewn a set of coloured ribbons into my book, to serve as page markers. Anglicans and Catholics will remember such ribbons from their prayer-books.
My book uses the standard six-ring ‘personal size’ Filofax pages (my friend uses the larger ‘desk size’ pages), and it will also accept pages which I have cut out by hand from sheets which have passed through my laser-printer. You can spend a great deal of money on odd things like transit maps from Atlanta or London or Philadelphia, or you can find things for free, amongst the daily passage of paper through your life.
A praise poem, as promised:
It feels appropriate to close with Swinburne’s poem, Mater Dolorosa; this is not an easy poem for any priestess, but much of worth lies within it and so I share it here:
Yea, wise is the world, and mighty, with years to give,
and years to promise, but how long now shall it live?
And foolish and poor is faith, and Her ways are bare,
till She find the way of the Sun, and the morning air.
In that hour shall this dead face shine as the face of the Sun
and the soul of man and Her soul and the world’s be one.