The Powers of the Universe Part Ten: Radiance
All the powers of the universe are one, seamlessly involved with one another, present everywhere in the universe, coursing through us, trying to bring forth Radiance.
The mystics knew Radiance long before the physicists described it. Here are the words of 12th c. abbess and genius, Hildegard of Bingen:
From my infancy until now, in the 70th year of my age, my soul has always beheld this Light, and in it my soul soars to the summit of the firmament and into a different air....The brightness which I see is not limited by space and is more brilliant than the radiance around the sun .... I cannot measure its height, length, breadth. Its name, which has been given me, is “Shade of the Living Light”....Within that brightness I sometimes see another light, for which the name “Lux Vivens” (Living Light) has been given me. When and how I see this, I cannot tell; but sometimes when I see it, all sadness and pain is lifted from me, and I seem a simple girl again, and an old woman no more!
In his concluding talk in the DVD series, “The Powers of the Universe” Brian Swimme speaks about Radiance, telling us that the most powerful presence of Radiance is the sun. In its core, the sun creates helium out of compressed hydrogen, releasing light. The process of fusion generates photons. Light emanates in waves which collapse into photon particles, creating light. The sun is also giving off messenger particles called gravitons that mediate the gravitational interaction by penetrating the earth, pulling the earth to the sun. We see the light, and feel the gravitational pull.
The moon also has Radiance, but not from creating light through fusion as the sun does.
The photons that come from the moon are created by the sun’s activity on the moon. The moon releases the light thus created, also bathing us with gravitons, to which the earth responds, as in the tides of the seas.
It is an ongoing activity of the universe to radiate. Even in the depths of the earth, everything radiates LIGHT. Radiance is the primary language of the universe.We are frozen light…
Brian Swimme says that every being we meet holds fourteen billion years of radiance. The twentieth century mystic Thomas Merton saw with clarity the gap between this stunning reality and our capacity to see it, and wondered how we might tell people that they are walking around shining like the sun!
Yet, by a willingness to see deeply, we can develop a subtle spirit that responds to the depths of spirit in another, a container that responds to the beauty of the other.
The archetypal example of this kind of depth perception is a mother beholding her child. Swimme asks: What is a mother seeing in the eyes of her child? This is the depth perception of beauty. When we look into the eyes of another do we see colour and shape only as in a surface, machine-like mentality or do we see flowing, radiating out of the eyes, the essence, the fullness of the person, his or her depth?
Light is a flow of emotions: light as joy, sadness, pouring out from another. Think what can happen with one glance where we fall in love so deeply that the rest of our life is changed: we contain the Radiance that is streaming out of another.
When, on a sleepless night, Swimme suggests, we go outdoors and see the stars, difficulties melt away and we are smothered with deep peace. Something glorious is streaming into us, something so deeply felt that we find peace in our at-homeness in the universe. When we look down and see fireflies (flashing to interest their mates) we realize we are participating in an amazingly sacred event.
We are drawn into the depth of things and when we go there we find the future direction of the universe. The earth makes rubies and sapphires out of elements that come together, that explode and sparkle with Radiance, as though the universe is trying to tell us something about our aliveness in the realm of possibility!
We sit by the ocean, drawn into what is really real, something that is attempting to establish a deep bond with us. The magnificence of ocean/sand/sky wants to sparkle forth like a sapphire. We feel what reverberates out, Swimme says, as if completing the beauty that’s there.
We enter into relationship with the Radiance of the universe through resonance and that is the primary form of prayer. Reverberation is the primary sacrament. We become the radiance that is flooding the world. If the resonance is deep enough, it fills our being so that we reverberate with the being of the other. The Radiance becomes the being. We are resonant with another when we begin to reverberate with the one we see. We are then in a non-dual relationship with another.
There is great joy in developing this level of interaction with life.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who died in 1955, wrote:
Throughout my whole life during every moment I have lived, the world has gradually been taking on light and fire for me, until it has come to envelop me in one mass of luminosity, glowing from within...The purple flash of matter fading imperceptibly into the gold of spirit, to be lost finally in the incandescence of a personal universe...This is what I have learnt from my contact with the earth - the diaphany of the divine at the heart of a glowing universe, the divine radiating from the depth of matter a-flame. (The Divine Milieu)
"The Diaphany of the Divine" artwork by Sister Marie Celine, CSJ, London, Canada
The Powers of the Universe Part Nine: Interrelatedness
It is late afternoon on this sun-blessed, wind-ruffled July day when I open my file on the Powers of the Universe, seeking this week’s theme of Interrelatedness. I rely on the Reflections I first wrote for our kreativefire website in the autumn of 2013 with notes garnered from Brian Swimme’s DVD series and Jean Houston’s Mystery School teachings on the way these powers impact our lives.
I find a story from a hot September day that I had forgotten.
Along the lane that leads to my house, there are many many trees, evergreen as well as deciduous, including several ancient apple and crab-apple trees. Year after year, I had driven past them, scarcely noticing their flowers, their fruit, their loss of leaves before their quiet winter sleep.
But in that late summer of 2013, some combination of factors led to an explosion of fruitfulness for one crab-apple tree just where the lane ends at my driveway.
I had noticed the tree the day before, saw that its two large branches were split near the trunk, their massive burden of crab-apples hovering just above the ground. I thought the tree might have been struck by lightning or else pummeled by winds in a recent storm.
I began to fill a large bin with crab-apples, so eager to be picked that they nearly leapt from their branches. I worked quickly, mindlessly, concerned only that these small apples should be “used” before they fell to the earth to rot.
After nearly an hour of moving heavy branches that hung all askew, picking as many apples as I could reach, I decided I could do no more. I was hot, sticky, and being slowly devoured by a local chapter of mosquitoes who had found me.
Then, I happened to look up at the tree. Something shifted in me. I was aware of a presence, a dim dark knowing, that moved my heart. Above me, the two split branches hung like almost-severed arms, and above them there was no great trunk. This was it. The tree was hopelessly broken, and would not bear again. Somehow I knew that it hadn’t been lightning or fierce winds but the sheer weight of this huge crop of apples that had broken her branches. This feast of fruit she offered as her dying gift.
Did I acknowledge that? Offer my thanks? I think so, but it was a brief act. I was eager to get out of the sun, away from the mosquitoes, into my swimsuit.
Walking through the woods to where a stairway of carefully-placed flat rocks leads down into the Bonnechere River, I sought relief from furnace-like heat. Embraced by the slowly moving river, I felt at first only the bliss of coolness, buoyancy. But gradually there came again the dim knowing that I had experienced beside the tree. A presence, a something, a someone, cooling me, embracing me, welcoming me into its life…
White Buffalo Calf Woman taught her people that all things are interrelated, so they must reverence all of life. This, Jean Houston said, is what the Power of Interrelatedness is about: a vision of caring with a sense of the whole; we need an overarching vision that is so simple and alluring that we can see what can be, not from many different perspectives (science, art, religion, etc.) but from an all-inclusive vision.
Jean sees the Power of Interrelatedness as an incredible invitation from the cosmos to create deep caring.
Interrelatedness or Care has been at work in the universe for 13.8 billion years, says Brian Swimme. Without it, the universe would fall apart. Parental care emerged as a value in the universe because it made survival more likely when the mother and father fish care for their young. As reptiles evolved, Swimme speculates that either they discovered caring, or perhaps it evolved along with them. Reptiles watch over their young and do not eat them (as do some fish).
The amazing power of care deepens with the arrival of mammals, whose care continues sometimes for a lifetime. This, says Swimme, is the universe showing what it values, enabling mammals to spread out.
Notice the baby elephant tucked in close to the adults. Elephant mothers care for their young for fifty years. This photo was taken by my friend Debra Hawley on a recent visit to South Africa.
In some species of mammals, the female selects among her suitors the male who offers the best chance of having her offspring survive. The female is behaving in a way that will affect the next generation. Through her, the universe is working to extend care. An intensive study of baboons led researchers to find that when a female chose a sexual partner, one of the qualities she sought was tenderness. Thus life seeks to deepen and extend care.
In a human person in whom the Power of Interrelatedness is strongly present, we see a psyche attuned to relatedness, with the capacity to identify another’s worth, and to be sensitive to the needs of others. Care can result in true devotion, service, nurturance. However Swimme cautions that this power needs to be balanced with the Power of Centration, lest one become so absorbed in the needs and values of others that there is a loss of the self.
Care has to be evoked. A mother sea-lion establishes relationship with her pup by licking, nuzzling, thus evoking her own motherhood. It is the same for us humans, says Swimme. We need to find ways to activate these deep cosmological powers so that we can interact with the universe. This requires imagination. The power of care is evoked out of the plasma of the early universe. How do we enter into that process of evoking care? Just becoming aware is to participate.
How we position ourselves within our relationships with all of life is crucial, and is an act of imagination. To position ourselves in order to USE life leads to the extinction of countless species. Even 100 million years of parental care was not enough to save many species of fish from extinction. The shaping of our imagination by economic, educational and manufacturing systems that see use as the primary mode or orientation towards life on the planet, also views children in schools as “products” to be shaped, (or views a tree’s bounty of crab-apples as something that must be “used”.)
What would be another way?
Swimme notes the amazing capacity of humans to care, a power that is coded in our DNA, where life has extended its care through us. But we also have, through the power of language and symbol, through our conscious self-awareness, the capacity for empathy. We can learn to experience care for another species, even as we can imaginatively occupy another place, and extend our care to other cultures. With deepening compassion we move outside of our own boxed-in perspective.
Seeing that cosmological care is built in from the very beginning of the universe, some people today speak of the Great Mother or Mother Earth. This, says Swimme, is the cosmological power of care employing a powerful image or symbol to reflect upon itself through the human.
Paraphrasing Meister Eckhart, Swimme says that “the eye we are using to regard care in the universe is the same eye that care is using to regard itself”. He asks: Is the role of the human to provide the vessel for a comprehensive care to come forth in the universe? The space in which this will take place is within the human.
On that September day, I was given the gift of experiencing interrelatedness directly in the self-giving bounty of a crab-apple tree, in the welcoming, cooling embrace of a gently-flowing river. Great Mother felt very close, inviting me, in Jean Houston’s words, into “a vision of caring with a sense of the whole”.
Powers of the Universe Part Eight: Transformation
Transformation is among the most stunning of the powers of the universe. Unlike the power of transmutation which creates small changes over time, transformation is sudden, dramatic.
A few summers ago, at our community’s holiday place, Mary noticed a nymph crawl out of the lake to attach itself to a plant. Mary, who has spent some twenty summers tending our lake, observing the life it contains, clearing deadwood, decay and weeds from its floor, knew what was about to happen.
She carefully carried the plant with the nymph still attached up to the lodge. Then she invited everyone to come and watch the miracle. Within an hour the adult nymph had shed its tight skin, expanded its new body. Before our wondering eyes, this pale, fragile, newly-emerged creature, its transparent wings delicate, took flight as a dragonfly. Transformation.
In his DVD series “Powers of the Universe”, Brian Swimme notes that while transmutation is the power of change at the individual level, transformation is change that is worked into the whole universe by the individual.
Scientists believe that the universe was aiming towards life from the beginning, yet the universe had to transform itself over and over through almost 10 billion years to get to LIFE. Early events in the universe are present in the early structures to which they gave birth.
Within stars, the birth of the universe is re-evoked, returning to its earlier stages.
Galaxies come to birth holding different eras in their structures. Galaxies enable planets which enable life.
These are transformative events leading to a time when more of the universe is present in one place.
Life is a way of holding a memory of an event. For example, in photosynthesis cells learn how to interact with the sun. That learning process is remembered in the genes so it can be folded back out. Now that whole event of photosynthesis is here. It’s not a “one-off”. More of the universe is folded into it. The memory is passed on by cells.
With the invention of sexuality, two beings fuse, the memories they carry shuffled together in new ways. The ancestral tree remembers, folds itself into a new being, shuffling events, shuffling genes so new combinations can arise.
The energy that permeates the solar system has been there for all time. Elements of the earth came from the stars. Life holds together all these ancient events.
A colossal interweaving enables this moment to exist. We can’t say the universe is simply here “by luck”. Swimme says that the universe is aiming to participate in the creation of community, attempting to become involved in a four-dimensional way in every place to activate community. We have to orient ourselves to the reality that the universe is aiming towards this.
We are invited into a huge responsibility as part of this unfolding. An individual’s experience can become the source for the recoding of the planet. All of cultural DNA can be recoded. The way in which we organize ourselves is recoding the genetics of other species.
With the appearance of the human we have the possibility of the transformation of the planet.
The mystics and poets intuited this before the scientists sought proof. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago: We are the transformers of Earth. Our whole being, and the flights and falls of our love, enable us to undertake this task.
Swimme asks what laws we are proud of: ending slavery? votes for women? laws to protect animals?
Where else do we see possibilities for transformation?
And what of the seismic shifts happening in our purchase of food? What of our growing demand to know where our food comes from? Our choices based on local sourcing? farmers’ markets sprouting everywhere? What of clothing purchases now that we know more of the sweat shops in Bangladesh and China?
From small transmutations in our personal lives, we can consciously seek the larger changes that will alter the planet, testing them for their coherence within the powers of the universe, asking whether these changes will contribute to the enhancement of life, becoming transformative. We are part of the unfolding of the four dimensions of the universe. The universe is present now, enfolded in the work we do.
One of the clearest descriptions of the experience of transformation at the personal level comes to us from the 20th century mystic, Caryll Houselander. After a long illness, a bout of scrupulosity, Caryll had an experience of God that removed her obsessive fears and gave her a profound peace. She writes:
It was in the evening, I think. The room was dark, and the flames of firelight dancing on the wall seemed almost to cause me pain when I opened my eyes....I no longer attempted to translate my torment as particular sins; I had realized in a dim, intuitive way that it was not something I had done that required forgiveness, but everything I was that required to be miraculously transformed.
Jean Houston advises that when we are moving into an experience of transformation we should go looking for guidance from the mystics, writers and poets who have experienced this.
Welcome beauty into our lives. Know that we have within us a visionary process which is a source for the recoding of the planet. All the codings for the life of the unborn future are available in us.
We are the recoding, the reset button.
Powers of the Universe Part Seven: Transmutation
In his DVD series, “The Powers of the Universe”, Brian Swimme recalls Teilhard’s saying that we are the universe reflecting on itself. Swimme invites us to see ourselves as the Power of Transmutation reflecting on itself in conscious self–awareness. He asks, “How can this lead to a more vibrant earth community?”
Natural selection, Transmutation, is the way form changes through time… in the universe, the birth of radiant energy in atoms changes everything; clouds change into galaxies; primal stars transmute into stellar systems with planets; the earth herself changes from molten rock into a living planet.
The universe forces itself out of one era into another. If you are a particle you have nowhere to go but into an atom…
So, what do we do when we discover ourselves in the midst of the end of one era, moving into another? How do we participate in this Transmutation?
Swimme says we need to look at the way life moves from one form to another. The earth uses a form of restraint, of judgement. At the moment when the earth begins to cool from its molten state to form a crust, there is a constraint into the form of continents. When two continents collide, there is further restraint on formerly free activity, enabling restriction and opposition that create mountain ranges. To insist that things remain the same is to insist on the end of the planet’s growth.
Another form of resistance happens when the desires of different beings are in opposition. At the heart of transmutation is the question of how to deal with obstacles and opposites. The grasshopper is constrained by the bird who eats it; the bird has to follow the grasshopper. But to remove the constraints is to upset the beauty of form. A slower grasshopper leads to a less fleet bird; a slower bird means that the grasshopper decreases its speed. The destiny of the bird is tied to the grasshopper.
Creativity is spread out over the whole community. The system has constraints, demands, judgements. The natural selection dynamic is based on judgement that leads to excellence of form and beauty. The beak of the bird developed so it might retrieve bugs from a tree. The relationship between the bird and the tree is a form of intimacy. Every bioregion has this spectacular beauty, with the integrity of the whole maintained by this power of judgement, restraint, struggle.
Until humans arise, taking the whole system into collapse through our ability to get around the constraints, the judgements, using all the powers to our own advantage. No longer does natural selection take care of the whole.
Our challenge is to become the Power of Transmutation in conscious self-awareness. We are called upon to bring restraint to human activity so that the natural selection dynamics can proceed. The powers of the universe need the human to proceed through this change.
Though our laws, customs and disciplines impose restraint on human activity, they have until now taken for granted that the human is the focus. Now we need to ask for laws that enable the whole community of life to flourish. We need to say clearly, “Some things are going to lead to ruin”. We need a law to protect species for themselves.
Swimme suggests that the human person in whom the Power of Transmutation surfaces strongly has a mind that is highly critical, judgemental. The tone of this person will be highly pessimistic with a sensitivity to the dynamic of the whole, with a drive for survival as well as deep respect for law, tradition, custom. The mind of a person in whom the Power of Transmutation is strong is not dogmatic, but has the ability to change in order to make it through the challenges before us.
The one in whom the Power of Transmutation is strong is highly–disciplined, leading a structured life, the opposite of the chaotic personality in whom Emergence is the stronger power. However, should the Power of Transmutation become frozen in a person, there is danger that the negative aspects of pessimism, cynicism and guilt might take over.
The feeling mode of the person experiencing the Power of Transmutation is that one does not fit in. There is a sense of being cut off, set aside, rejected, even wounded. Yet those who feel most cut off are the ones who feel most deeply that the universe has made a judgement that this era is over. This is an invitation from the universe to look at what life does, to see in the opposition, the wound, one’s destiny.
Swimme says: You are feeling the universe is rejecting part of you. Embrace the rejection, embrace that which is attempting to eliminate those aspects of yourself that are maladaptive, the elements that are part of the era that is over: a society based on consumerism, based on destroying opposition.
The planet is withering because humans have accepted a context that is much too small. We can no longer decide only what is best for a corporation or a culture but we must move to a larger context, to the planetary level. Our decisions will affect thousands of future generations. We are the universe as a whole reflecting on itself in this particular place.
Who are the models to inspire us? We co-evolve with all other beings. The great moments of beauty in the universe become our guides, and our criteria by which to judge. We look to the future, to beings who will learn to live in harmony to enable the whole to flourish. Thus we learn to live in the context of the whole universe: past, present and future, with the energies of the planet.
Sometimes we catch a glimpse of that future: when a windstorm knocked out electricity in our community’s holiday place one summer, a few of us decided to stay on. Small changes, transmutations… an evening swim rather than a morning shower…. food cooked on a barbecue… water for washing dishes heated on the barbecue…. perishables such as milk and yogurt packed in an ice chest…. wading into the lake in tall boots to scoop up buckets of water to keep the toilets working...
On the second night, sitting in darkness illumined by golden candles, we watched the rose madder sunset splash across the sky, and soon after Venus became clearly visible. For a little while she was a silvery presence but as the earth rolled away to the east, Venus slowly sank below the horizon…
This beauty we would have missed had there been electric light. I remembered a snatch of poetry: “After my house burned down, I had a better view of the moon.”
The Powers of the Universe Six: Synergy
As we continue our exploration of the Powers of the Universe, as described by Brian Swimme in his DVD series of that name, we come to the power of synergy. This power is magnificently illustrated in the behaviour of the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica for whom a learned behaviour has meant survival. They form a tight cluster with the outer circle exposed to the frigid cruelty of the weather while the inner circle is held in warmth. Then in a shifting soundless dance, they change places.
The power of synergy has brought forward some of the most wondrous and crucial developments in the 13.8 billion year history of the universe. Plants that need nitrogen to survive, but are unable to draw it in, form a synergistic relationship with nodules whose bacteria can draw in nitrogen. Flowers, plants and trees that need to be pollinated thrive through their synergistic relationship with bees. Swimme describes some great moments in synergy throughout the life of our planet: (a) single cells learn to trade aspects of genetic information, enabling the spread of ideas across the earth; (b) photosynthesis occurs when, in a synergistic relationship between life and the sun, cells learn to interact with sunlight to draw in energy; (c) life learns to get hydrogen from water, releasing oxygen, but as oxygen is destructive to life, those forms of life that learn to draw in oxygen, creating through synergy new structures, survive, while the forms of life that do not learn how to do this, sink down into the swamp ; (d) organisms learn how to mate: the discovery of sexuality 1.5 billion years ago enables an explosion of possibilities and new life forms as sexualized animals cover the planet.
Synergistic relationships enable survival and endurance. In order for life to endure two great challenges need to be met: find energy and create offspring. Life rewards creativity in these two crucial areas with survival. Synergy flowers as life finds creative response to this dual challenge. The quest, according to Swimme, is not to eliminate the challenge but to respond to it.
Seeking a synergistic response to life’s challenges has led to increasing complexity in the human. The challenge of finding energy relates to finding food. Swimme cites an aboriginal tribe who depended upon rabbit for survival. Regularly a group of fifty hunters came together to catch an abundance of rabbits for a steady food supply. Their social cohesion resulted from this need to work together to catch their food. In Inuit societies, the whole community comes together to capture a whale, something impossible for a lone hunter to achieve.
When humans learn to interact with seeds and plants, the nomadic way of life of the hunter/ gatherer societies is altered. A settled way of life emerges with the development of agriculture, pushing to the margins those who remain with the old ways, continuing to hunt and gather. The settled way of life intensifies through classical civilization and into industrial society where productivity increases, again with a crowding out of the earlier forms.
In our time, we see contemporary industrial society around the planet crowding out earlier forms of life, with the evaporation of indigenous groups everywhere. The factories and sweat shops of India and China lure workers into cities, where in order to earn small wages, they sometimes have to live separated from their families in barrack-like conditions. Understanding the process that has led to this moment in the earth’s history frees us to question whether this intensity of production is what we really want. Does the revelation of the appalling, life-threatening conditions in factories such as those in Bangladesh lead us to question our societal thirst for more and cheaper goods? Is this really an enhancement of life on our planet? Do we see the phenomenal rise in community gardens and farmers’ markets as a sign of hope that we are shifting away from a production/transportation model that brings food to our table from across the planet? A recent CBC story told of an organic garden being created atop a high-rise building in downtown Montreal, a prototype for a whole new way of imagining how to grow the food we need.
The challenge for our time, as Swimme sees it, is for synergy to operate through conscious self-awareness. The movement now needs to be from an industrial to a planetary civilization, requiring the birth of the planetary human. Once we accept our true identity as earth community, sharing genes with oak trees and oysters, this becomes much easier. If we see our humanness from the perspective of biology rather than from religion or politics or culture, we can begin to imagine a planetary society. If we open ourselves to what other species can teach us, our learnings are greatly enhanced. What might fish be able to teach us about keeping the oceans healthy? Finally, war, once a form of social cohesion, has to be replaced. We take on instead the challenge of a synergistic relationship with others in order to deal with a wilting planet and a failing eco-system.
The death throes of Western civilization can be experienced as birth pangs as a new era of humanity is about to emerge. To move towards an abundance of life for all children, for all planetary life, demands greater synergy, deeper power, new technology and moral wisdom to guide us forward, Swimme believes. As with other new developments, the older nationalistic forms of life will not disappear but will hang around as they gradually make their way to the bottom of the swamp.
A message about the power of synergy comes in this email from Ricken Patel of Avaaz.org, a planet-wide movement, inviting individuals to study and respond to issues that affect all of life, such as Monsanto’s pesticide:
This has my head spinning. In months, Europe could actually ban the killer herbicide that Monsanto's entire business model is based on!
Glyphosate kills *everything* except Monsanto's genetically engineered crops, transforming our planet into ecological wastelands where nothing can live but one GM crop. It's apocalyptic.
Even worse, its use is skyrocketing, has been found in 90% of our bodies, and a new study says it likely causes cancer!
Last week, we won a massive battle to block renewal of glyphosate's license in Europe. Everyone told us this was impossible, but we changed the game! Leading EU politician Pavel Poc said: “Avaaz is indisputably the driving force on glyphosate”. Like with climate change and the Paris agreement, Avaaz has mobilised people on this issue at an unprecedented scale - we've taken the fight against Monsanto to a whole new level, and now it's up to all of us, over the next 18 months, to win it.
First big oil, now Monsanto. We are taking on the dragons of our world. But if we stick together, and choose to believe and act, we can do anything.
With hope and determination, Ricken, Alice, Bert, Pascal and the whole Avaaz team
This movement towards newness and rebirth is beginning. When we align our personal energies with it by creating mutually enhancing relationships, we align our human energies with this cosmological power called synergy.
The Powers of the Universe: Cataclysm
Our reflections continue on the Powers of the Universe as elucidated by Brian Swimme in his DVD series.
Cataclysm is as essential to reality as emergence. The destructions, degradations and disasters of the universe are part of the story of its life, a movement from a complex to a simple state that allows for the emergence of newness.
Imagine a star twenty times the size of our sun. The force of gravity would reduce it to a cinder were it not for the opposing energy sent forth from its heart, created by the fusing of hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei. This activity allows it to maintain, in Swimme’s words, “a seething equilibrium” for some ten million years.
When the hydrogen has all been transformed into helium, that fusion process ends. Gravity causes the star to collapse into a smaller space until its core heats up to the temperature required to fuse helium into carbon.
The cycle repeats as carbon fuses into oxygen, then oxygen into silicon and on and on until only iron remains. Iron releases no energy when it fuses; nothing is left to push out from the star’s centre to oppose the force of gravity. The star can only implode upon itself and in seconds a multi-million year process is over;
a massive star becomes a mere speck.
an exploded star blooms like a flower in the universe
The energy of the implosion has crushed the constituent electrons and protons together to form neutrons, releasing more elementary particles called neutrinos. This reverses the imploding movement to blast the star apart in a firework display more brilliant than a galaxy of shining stars. As it expands, a nucleosynthesis takes place, creating the nuclei of all the elements of the universe. In this supernova explosion are birthed the elements that will form our planet and our bodies. (for a fuller explication of this process, see Chapter 3: “The Emanating Brilliance of Stars” in Journey of the Universe, co-authored by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011)
The life story of a star is an astounding example of cataclysm giving birth to new life. The power of cataclysm is seen in many aspects of life in the universe. Two hundred and fifty million years ago (when our earth was already ancient of days at age four billion and a bit…) a cataclysm occurred that eliminated 96% of marine species and 70% of land species. Swimme says that huge die-offs occur roughly every one hundred million years, and we are right in the middle of one now. Whatever our capacities for conscious denial, Swimme believes, our hearts and our bodies feel this awareness in a rising sense of frustration, of regret, of failure.
I would add to that a profound sense of grief. I recall watching a power-point that singer/songwriter Carolyn McDade prepared to illustrate the species in my own bio-region under threat of extinction. As I watched the unique, startling beauty of each form of life, the soulful eyes of owls, reptiles, birds, otters, small mammals, gazing back at me from the screen, I was shaken by a grief so sudden and wrenching that I wept.
All the while, Carolyn’s voice sang as a prayer of pleading, “let them continue on….”
Later that summer I saw in the river near my home an otter with a mate and young ones, and felt a deep joy…
Concurrent with this extinction of species is the desertification of land, the shrinking rain forests, the dying rivers and lakes. As though engaged in a death dance between nature and man-made structures, we see the waning into near-extinction of many of the religious, political, economic, education, health and societal systems in which we had once placed our trust.
Is there a graced way to live into a period of cataclysm? Swimme suggests that we might identify with the power that is destroying us by consciously surrendering aspects of ourselves, our society, our way of being in the world, that no longer serve us, thus enabling the universe to pulverize those aspects...We can try to see the destruction of consumer culture as part of the earth’s work of cataclysm, seeking to free us, to free our lives.
When cataclysm strikes an area of the planet through flood or fire, earthquake, tornado or tsunami, haven’t we heard voices raised that dared to bless the disaster because it revealed what is worth valuing in life?
The twentieth century mystic Etty Hillesum, shortly before her death in Auswitch, wrote words that might be a light for us in this time:
I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days, also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the end.
For the next level of growth, of deepening, something has to wake us up, shake us up. It may take a tornado to blow us all the way to Oz where the greatest gifts await us. Jean Houston says that the call of this time of Cataclysm is to “radical reinvention” in order to speciate, to become a deepening spirit of the earth for her new emergence. Never before in history have so many devoted themselves to develop fully, to regard problems as opportunities in work clothes. Encouraging us that we have just the right gifts on just the right planet to bring this new earth community to life, Jean adds, “You are blessed to be alive at this time.”
This is our moment, Brian Swimme believes, our star exploding, ready to create emeralds and giraffes, ready to release us into a new earth community.
The Powers of the Universe: Homeostasis
One of the major shifts in consciousness required for our time is that we belong to the evolutionary co-creative process, and it is in discovering our mutual interdependence within the cosmos, and particularly with planet Earth, that we will begin to reclaim our spiritual identity.
Diarmuid O’ Murchu Reclaiming Spirituality New York Crossroads 1998 p. 41
Homeostasis is the power by which the universe maintains what it values. It is a delicate dance of holding onto what is most important through all the swirls and shifts of change.
In his DVD series Powers of the Universe, Brian Swimme offers some stunning examples of the earth’s power of homeostasis: the dynamics that maintain the form and function of a mammal’s body; the human bloodstreams where the ph balance is the same as in the bloodstreams of most animals and fish; the temperature of the human body.
The earth herself remains in a state where life can flourish, even as the sun gets hotter; the earth has maintained its temperature over the four billion years, just as a mammal’s body does. The earth cycles through times of cooling when the ice caps swell to reflect more of the sun’s heat away; then it grows warmer so that the ice caps shrink. This cycle repeats every 100,000 years.
The Milky Way Galaxy cycles through its explosions of supernovas. In one million year cycle where there are 8000 supernovas (a smaller number) the cloud becomes denser than usual, so the capacity to create stars is greater. In the next million year cycle, 12000 supernovas explode. Homeostasis.
Then we humans enter the realm of life with our quality of conscious self-awareness.
When we understand what is valued, essential for life on this planet, our perspective shifts away from focus on the part to the whole. The enormous ego-centricity of our lives in a nation like Canada or the United States shifts to embrace the need to maintain human life in other parts of the planet, then to look at what animal life/ tree life/ river life/ocean life /earth life requires for its continuance.
Though we understand ourselves to be the gathered-in-ness of 13.8 billion years of life in the universe (the power of centration), though we honour the search for love and fullness of life that draws us forward (the power of allurement) and though we rejoice in the restless creativity that is our personal invitation from the universe to be involved in emergence, the power of homeostasis calls us to a care and vigilance, a keen awareness of the fragility of our existence, and a sensitivity to vulnerable areas.
holding on to what works: the chambered nautilus
Asking the question why homeostasis is falling apart in major life systems, (the desertification of huge amounts of land, the poisoning of rivers and lakes, the loss of the rain forests, the very lungs of our planet…) Brian Swimme says it is because we humans are trying to use the power of homeostasis to maintain a subgroup of the whole rather than the whole body. We think our fundamental responsibility is to a sub-unit rather than to the whole body. The great search now for fossil fuel in tar sands or through fracking, poisoning the water to release gas, is a desperate effort to maintain a standard of life enjoyed by a favoured few.
Swimme calls it an intellectual illusion that humanity is separate from the earth community. There is no human community without the whole. The earth community is a form of guidance for us, crying out to us that it is not inert material, not just stuff! It takes a major shift for us humans to see that we come out of the earth community, we derive from it. The matrix itself is primary.
Such an understanding would alter the way we organize life on the planet, calling us to create laws and establish policing to protect bio-regions as well as humans, to protect the right to existence of all life on the planet. If we know that each being has a right to be we understand the need to restrict human activity so that the whole can flourish.
On a communal and on a personal level, the power of homeostasis will help us to maintain the achievements of our lives, to raise up energy and increase commitment to our work, to our relationships. We can tell the story of what we’re about, tell the story of our love relationships and maintain a zest for life! Millions of years, Swimme says, are involved in a single moment of zest.
Whenever and wherever we tell the story of our emergence out of the life of the planet, honouring all the forms of life that share our right to be here, we are the power of homeostasis, enabling life to blossom.
But homeostasis, as with the other powers of the universe, has its down side. Maintaining and sustaining what we value in life, what keeps us sane, is important, but, as Jean Houston warns, holding onto anything for too long leads to stagnation, and “the universe gets bored with you”.
The opening scenes of the film “the Wizard of Oz” show homeostasis as the absence of vitality. Nothing is happening in a place blown dry, grey-brown, empty. No one has time for the young Dorothy who is in a state of immense longing. The only being who still has any zest for life is the little dog Toto.
When homeostasis goes on for too long, when life no longer holds zest, the next power of the universe must come into play: Cataclysm ….
The Powers of the Universe: Emergence
The Spirituality of the Sacred Feminine
Emergence: the universe flares forth out of darkness, creating, over billions of years, through trial and error and trying again, astounding newness: carbon for life in the middle of a star…. the birth of planets, our earth holding what is required for life to emerge…. the creation of water from hydrogen and oxygen….the emergence of a cell with a nucleus.
Each of these seemingly impossible happenings did happen, offering us humans the hope that the impossible tasks confronting us in our time can be creatively addressed, showing us, as Brian Swimme expressed it, a domain of the possible beyond imagination. Our human endeavour has been powered by non-renewable energy resources. Our task now is to reinvent the major forms of human presence on the planet in agriculture, architecture, education, economics…. We need to align ourselves with the powers of the universe, consciously assisting, amplifying, accelerating the process of creative endeavour.
Jean Houston teaches us how to work with the universe to assist what is trying to emerge within us. We set up a schedule. We show up at the page, or in the listening or prayer place, regularly to signal our intent to be open. We create internal structures that are ready to receive what wants to emerge in us. We drop in an idea that puts us in touch with essence, creating in us a cosmic womb so the universal power can work in us. Like Hildegard of Bingen, we become a flowering for the possible, attracting the people and resources that we need.
Among the aspects of human life that require creative imagination for a new birth, an emergence, I would like to focus on religion/spirituality/our way of relating with the Sacred.
The eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote:
…the existing religious traditions are too distant from our new sense of the universe to be adequate to the task that is before us. We need a new type of religious orientation….a new revelatory experience that can be understood as soon as we recognise that the evolutionary process is from the beginning a spiritual as well as a physical process. (Dream of the Earth Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1988)
What new revelatory experience, what new type of religious orientation is emerging today?
As I am neither a theologian nor a sociologist, I invite you to experience with me an aspect of the newness in spirituality that is emerging among women with roots in Christianity, with branches that now extend to embrace a relationship of partnership with a sacred feminine presence whom some would call the Goddess.
Take a chair at the table in a room in a small Catholic college in western Canada. As part of a focus group of thirteen women, drawn from some one hundred interviewees, you’ve been asked to reflect upon the way you blend your Christian faith with a relationship to the feminine holy. For several hours of concentrated conversation on this topic, facilitated by the research co-ordinator, you listen to your new companions.
What do you see? Hear? Experience? On this sunny late spring morning, one of the women leads an opening prayer in the four directions, calling on the presence of the Sacred Feminine to guide us in wisdom, in newness, nurtured by the gifts symbolized by earth, air, water and fire.
As each woman speaks, you notice the different pathways that have brought her here, that have awakened her awareness of a Holy Presence that is feminine. For some it is the writings of the feminist theologians, uncovering the deep but largely neglected tradition of Sophia /Wisdom, the feminine principle of God. For others it is through earth–based spiritualities such as indigenous beliefs and practices, or involvement in ritual, or Wiccan studies.
For the several Catholics present, Mary has been the pathway. As one woman recalls, “I was taught as a child that God was too busy to hear my prayers so I should pray to Mary instead.” Listen as other women tell of travels to places where the Sacred was known and honoured as woman in ancient times, especially sites in France and elsewhere in Europe sacred to the Black Madonna.
But mostly you are struck by the way that for each one, imaging the Holy as feminine has given a voice, a new power, a sense of personal value, that were lacking to her when God was imaged as male.
Imaging God as woman gives an honouring to women’s bodies, especially needed in a culture where the standard for feminine beauty (young, slim, nubile) is set by men. You hear women share without bitterness, but with a sense of having come to a place of grace, childhood and adult experiences of feeling devalued in Church – related settings because of being female. You smile with recognition as one woman recalls that when her teacher said, “God is in everyone,” she had asked, “Is God in me?” and was assured that was so. “Then is God a woman?” she asked. Her teacher, a nun, responded, “There are some mysteries we are not meant to understand.”
Listen now to the responses when the facilitator asks, “How do you express your relationship with the Feminine Divine? Would you call it worship?” No one feels that word fits.
“She is a mother…” “At first she was mother, but now is more of a friend”… “A partner, inviting me to co-create with her.”
“Devotion is the word I choose, because it holds a sense of love,” and to this many agree with nods and smiles.
What stirs in you as you listen? Do you begin to sense that there is more to this emerging relationship to the sacred feminine than our need for her, our longing for her? Is this emergence initiated perhaps by the Holy One herself who comes to us in our time of great need?
Look around the table at your companions: these are power houses. The submissive woman, so beloved of patriarchal religions, has no place in a life devoted to the Goddess. There is a rage for justice, for the transformation of life on the planet. One woman here has taken on the task of building and maintaining natural hives for bees; one is a film-maker who wants to tell stories of women that will change the way we see ourselves in the images of films and television; one is a Baptist minister who writes of the way Jesus is himself an embodiment of the Sophia-Wisdom principle; one is a theologian who identifies the Spirit as the life force found everywhere in each land and culture and tradition, linking all of life; one fiercely joins the struggle to defeat those who would modify and monopolize the seeds of the earth, or put poison in ground water to release its gas…
As you look at these devotees of the sacred feminine, you see that they are living the new revelatory experience that Berry wrote about. They are themselves the beautiful reflection of the Sophia, the Sacred Feminine, the Goddess of many names, emerging in the lives of the women and men of today who are opening themselves to her. They are, we are, the ones ready with her creative power at work in us to take on the great tasks that our time requires.
Gloria Steinem has written: God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there is no turning back.
What is the creative fire that burns in you as you read this?
What allures you about this new way of knowing and partnering with the Sacred?
How will we in the Communion assist in this Emergence?
The Powers of the Universe: Allurement
Last week, we began a series of reflections on the process through which the universe unfolds into radiance. It is our process as well, our story, and our most urgent call in this time. For as Jean Houston reminds us:
All the powers of the universe are seamlessly one, trying to bring forth radiance. These powers can be understood mystically as within ourselves waiting to assist us to bring forth a world that works for everyone.
Brian Swimme, in his DVD series Powers of the Universe, describes ten interwoven powers: Centration, Allurement, Emergence, Homeostasis, Cataclysm, Synergy, Transmutation, Transformation, Interrelatedness and Radiance.
Centration, as we saw last week, is the coming together in one life of the entire 13.8 billion year process of evolutionary development.
What is the power of Allurement? How is it at work in the universe? in us?
Allurement is what holds everything together. Allurement is at the heart of the universe. It is the power that holds the earth in thrall to the sun, the moon to the earth, the tides to the moon, our very blood to the surges of the sea. The planets are lured by the sun to orbit ceaselessly around it, while our galaxy spins, in harmony with other galaxies, in one great dance of desire and longing.
The universe is bound together in communion, each thing with all the rest. The gravitational bond unites all the galaxies; the electromagnetic interaction binds all the molecules; the genetic information connects all the generations of the ancestral tree of life. (Brian Swimme)
4.5 billion years ago, the earth and the sun discovered one another, coming forth in a powerful field of allurement and attraction. Swimme notes that the action of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in most plants, responsible for absorbing light to provide the energy needed for photosynthesis, only works on our planet. It is an inter-creation with our sun, the earth being shaped by that which it loves. Atoms respond to allurement, becoming stars, becoming part of a gravitational field, becoming themselves a source of allurement even though, Swimme adds, “they have no idea why they are responding.”
After they were birthed, the Magellanic Clouds, nearest neighbour to our Milky Way Galaxy, stopped making stars for eight billion years. Four billion years ago, this luminous mass was drawn into an encounter with the Milky Way that ignited its star-making capacities…it’s been making stars ever since!
On our planet, sexuality began some 300 million years ago and allurement has been developing ever since in life forms. Life wants to deepen the journey that begins with allurement, Swimme says. We can think of ourselves as the place where the universe houses its power of allurement, wanting it to burst into conscious self-awareness. The power of allurement is at work within us.
Swimme suggests that if we are attracted, we have already been acted upon; we are molded by what we love. As with the earth and the sun, through the work of adoration we allow the Beloved to begin to shape who we are.
We need to be aware of the tenderness of the human, remembering that what we’re attracted to is also wounded; it is true of bio-regions as well as of communities and individuals that membranes guard our sensitivities. The intensity of attraction, the power of allurement, can, over time, dissolve these protective membranes, allowing for mutual enhancement and mutual healing.
Our capacity for self-reflection enhances our desire to merge, to be a presence of joy and pleasure, to evoke a depth of feeling and well-being in the other. This desire is so deep that we learn to feel what the beloved is feeling; we desire to be a cause of joy.
For us humans these powers of love go beyond the partnership of human lovers, expanding into a partnership with the Divine, allowing us to become a presence of love wherever we are: with persons, with other life forms, with the planet herself, through our awareness of the interconnectedness of all of life.
In the process of loving, the Mystics become our friends, our teachers, our guides. They lived in the power of allurement through their love relationship with the Sacred Presence at the heart of the Universe.
Writing in the 13th century, Mechtild of Magdeburg exults in a passionate love with and for the Holy One:
I cannot dance, O lord, unless Thou lead me. If Thou wilt that I leap joyfully, then must Thou Thyself first dance and sing! Then will I leap for love, from love to knowledge, from knowledge to fruition, from fruition to beyond all human sense. There will I remain and circle evermore.
Hafiz, the Sufi mystic poet of fourteenth century Persia, teaches us:
Know the true nature of your Beloved. In His loving eyes, your every thought,
Word and movement is always, Always beautiful.
As the mystics did, we draw unto ourselves, and are lured towards, the love that holds the universe together. We allure all we require to grow in that love, within the calling, the shape of destiny that is uniquely ours. And we ourselves can be principles of allurement.
Again, Hafiz says it well:
There is only one reason we have followed God into this world:
To encourage laughter, freedom, dance and love.
By allowing allurement to unfurl in our consciousness, Swimme says we can develop:
*passionate absorption in the world of others with a capacity to enter deeply into its reality
* a wide spectrum of feelings and moods because of the ability to absorb the needs and feelings of persons and places
*an amazing capacity to become completely overwhelmed in situations that seem trivial, such as sitting by a pond
* a sensitivity to beauty in all its forms.
The challenge for someone deeply drawn by allurement is to maintain a sense of identity. (Am I a cloud or a raven?) Allurement is balanced by the opposite pull of centration.
Yet if we allow ourselves to be drawn by beauty, releasing ourselves into the field of our allurements, we’ll create a mutually-enhancing lure to beauty.
We discover something that Swimme wrote many years ago in his book The Universe is a Green Dragon:
Your allurements draw you into the activity of evoking the life about you.
Swimme tells how he was lured by the wonder of the stars to study physics. One day a student of his changed his major from music to physics. This is how the universe works, Swimme believes. We are captivated by the beauty of the universe. We pursue this beauty. Others are captivated through us.
Jean Houston advises us to have leaky margins, to be able to fall in love with everything. We live then with delight in the other, experiencing the energy and generativity that come with loving.
The Powers of the Universe : Centration
The cosmological Powers of the Universe
are coursing through us moment by moment.
To become aware of these powers
is to touch the Source of Life.
Brian Thomas Swimme, Evolutionary Cosmologist
In the introduction to his DVD set “The Powers of The Universe”, Brian Swimme offers this summary of the ten powers, held together in seamlessness:
Centration: the coming together in one life of the entire evolutionary development
Allurement: what holds it all together; in societies, the values and ideals that help them cohere
Emergence: the Universe is a story, not a place or a thing, always bringing forth newness
Homeostasis: the Universe holds onto its achievements: the oyster shell – it works!
Cataclysm: the Universe sometimes destroys its achievements purposely in addition to accidental destruction
Synergy: complexification as things come together; diversity creates more complex systems
Transmutation: newness begins, builds
Transformation: always, always newness is being created
Inter-relatedness: when diversity and commonality come together, as now on the planet: people are discovering diverse gifts, beginning to have common concerns
Radiance: a new evolutionary reality, as Teilhard de Chardin foresaw, something beyond what has been until now.
Out of seamlessness, a person is here (centration) seeing the universe involved in her unfolding. Through allurement, she begins to pursue dreams which emerge in relationships. Through homeostasis she finds her role in society, where she fits in …but then cataclysm where things fall apart… marriage, health, job… One way or another, the person’s cataclysm will relate to the present cataclysm of the planet.
The collapse of what one thought was real eliminates illusion, a glimmer of the need for synergy, a larger vision for the community and for others. Transmutation comes from awareness that I need to change parts of my life (consumerism? militarism? competition?)
This can lead to a deep unlearning, a metanoia, metamorphosis, connecting one to the origins of things, developing a creative vision for moving forward, a vision that itself needs to be tested internally against the other powers of the universe...moving one towards transformation where inter-relatedness happens at a more elegant level as one sees the light in the other, and finally radiance.
Recalling that we are beings in whom the Universe resides, we begin our exploration of Swimme’s teaching with the first power that he identifies in the Universe: Centration.
CENTRATION, Swimme teaches, is the coming together in one life of the entire evolutionary development. What if? he asks, what if the role of the human after 13.8 billion years, is to allow the Powers of the Universe to be enhanced and advanced through us?
What if we understood that the Universe is centred on us, with the aim of bringing forth another form of life, one that will draw life itself forward? Our challenge, Swimme says, is to learn how to participate in this process by removing obstacles so that the power of centration can proceed. The main obstacle, he says, is that modern individual consciousness prevents our appreciation that the WHOLE is real, and has its own intentions.
How would our lives look if we opened ourselves to allow the power of centration to grow in us? The shift in consciousness, should we as a species open ourselves to this fully, would rival the shift that occurred when, in the sixteenth century Copernicus declared that the earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth….
In 1905, Einstein realized that life is not boxed in with a clock ticking beside it but rather that space and time in the Universe depend upon the observer, that the Universe rises up with respect to a particular orientation.
Half a century later, Carl Jung would understand that each of us experiences the universe in our own way.
The story of the evolution of life holds the teachings we require to allow the power of centration to be enhanced through us.
Life created the membrane to allow creation to withstand the onslaught of the sea. Swimme advises that in this time when our planet is threatened with destruction we too need to develop a permeable barrier whose intelligence will determine what goes through and to find a way to keep out what is leading to degradation, refusing to give entry.
We need also to identify and amplify what we do want to pass through the membrane: those elements which will enhance our journey into ourselves.
The second thing required for the development of life is a catalyst that, like the molecule, accelerates the process. For this, Swimme suggests we find a way to contact the primordial energy of nature, to drop into contact with the Universe, knowing that the Universe is longing to centre itself in a new way. Spend time in a storm, by the waves of a shore, beside a birdfeeder, Swimme suggests. Find a way to channel this energy of 13.8 billion years.
Reflecting on Centration:
What would change in my life if I were more fully open to the power of Centration, understanding that my life is part of a WHOLE? How would my life be different if I saw it as a journey for which the UNIVERSE holds intention, holds a hope for something far beyond what I can see or imagine?
How do I /we develop an intelligent sieve, a membrane with wisdom to keep out of my consciousness what would harm me while recognizing and allowing the passage of elements that will enhance and assist the journey to the sacred centre of my life?
What ways have I found, and which do I seek, that will bring me into closer contact with the power of nature? Knowing that the Universe is longing to be more fully centred in me, how do I encourage this closeness?
Mystics, Physicists, Julian of Norwich and the Communion
If you have ever had, in a moment of deep prayer, in an out-of-body or near-death experience, a knowing beyond that available through your senses, you have had a mystical experience.
Mystics fascinate philosophers, psychologists and scientists especially now when perceptions by mystics and physicists about the universe are coming into startling coherence.
Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic, one of the godmothers of our Communion of Creative Fire, writes that God showed her:
in my mind’s eye…something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought “what can this be?” And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding:
It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (Showings, Colledge and Walsh p. 130)
Look now at the photo that has become a major icon in our lifetime:
(earth from Apollo 17)
Seven hundred years after Julian saw the earth as something small…as round as any ball in the palm of her hand, the U.S. Astronaut James Irwin wrote:
The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. (p. 158 The Hand of God)
Who or what is mystic? I like the description given by theologian Margaret Brennan, because it opens the door where we all might enter with grace:
Mystics are people who come in touch with the sacred source of who they really are and are able to realize and experience that in their lives. When we have come in touch with the deep centre of ourselves/our lives we realize that we are more than what we seem to be, that there’s something deeper in ourselves than meets the eye.
Evelyn Underhill, early 20th c. English scholar and mystic, gives this descriptor:
Mysticism...is the direct intuition or experience of God;
and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centred, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which (s)he regards as first-hand personal knowledge.
In Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood, 2002.Mary Conrow Coelho speaks of the relevance pf mystics for us today:
The contemplative tradition certainly provokes many questions about the nature of matter, the identity of the person, the meaning of the word God.
It once seemed impossible to understand and accept the contemplative’s claims, given Western assumptions about matter and God. But now this has changed. Within the new story of the evolutionary universe and the new cosmology and new physics by which it is informed, the contemplative tradition finds a central place.
We in the Communion of Creative Fire have taken on the magnificent task of exploring that new story of the evolutionary universe, seeking within it a new way of knowing the Love at its deep heart. The mystics, like Julian of Norwich, Teilhard de Chardin, Hildegard of Bingen, and so many others whom we have befriended on this journey have already found that Love. Moreover, their deep oneness with the sacred centre of themselves gave them intuitions about life in the universe that are only now in our time being affirmed scientifically.
When the 20th c. Physicist David Bohm said that we are “frozen light” did he know that in the 12th century, Hildegard had proclaimed that “every creature has a radiance”?
The mystics intuited the interconnection of all of life long, long before physicists in our time made the same discovery. Hildegard of Bingen wrote:
Everything that is in heaven, on the earth and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness…with relatedness.
The 20th c. astronaut Edgar Mitchell said, “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.” It altered his life and led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California. He said ...on the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”
(p. 67 The Hand of God)
W.T. Stace, a contemporary scholar of mysticism writes:
The whole multiplicity of things which comprise the universe are identical with one another and therefore constitute only one thing, a pure unity. The Unity, the One...is the central experience and the central concept of all mysticism, of whichever type.
He quotes the medieval Dominican Mystic: Meister Eckhart:
All that a (person) has here externally in multiplicity is intrinsically One. Here all blades of grass, wood and stone, all things are One. This is the deepest depth.
In The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist Lawrence Leshan wrote that the mystic “perceives himself at one with the total cosmos, and knows it to be so valid that he cannot be lost from it.... it is from this total being at home in the universe that he participates in the serenity, the peace....the joy that is so typical of the mystical adept.”
2oth century mystic Thomas Merton experienced this oneness with life:
One only ceases to be absurd when, realizing that everything is absurd when seen in isolation from everything else, meaning and value are sought only in wholeness. The solitary must return to the heart of life and oneness, losing himself, not in the illusion but simply in the root reality, plunging through the center of his own nothingness and coming out in the all, which is the void, and which is, if you like, the Love of God. (Journals, June 20, 1966)
In the coming weeks, we shall journey together into the insights now available to us about our universe, deepening at the same time our understanding of ourselves, for, as Jean Houston teaches, we live in the universe and the universe lives in us.
Sophia as Archetype
Reflection for January 26, 2016
Sophia has journeyed with us over past months both in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s writings on The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature, and in our exploration of the way the people of Greece honour her as Wisdom. During the Season of Epiphany, Wisdom/ Sophia illumined our path through rituals, poetry and scripture.
But Sophia may also serve as an archetype for us.
Carl Jung taught that we hold within us ancient knowings, images inherited from our earliest ancestors: archetypes of mother/lover/friend/warrior/father/son/ wise one/ teacher/daughter… and so on.
In The Search for the Beloved (1987), Jean Houston writes of a realm where these archetypal guides dwell, a place of myth and symbols, of sacred time and sacred space, a “container of that which never was and is always happening.” (p. 24)
(I)t is the place where the self joins its polyphrenic possibilities, including the gods and goddesses and their courts. In Sanskrit these celestial beings are referred to as yidams, the personified “rivers to the Ocean of Being.” The gods -- Athena, Asclepios, Sophia, Shiva, Quetzalcoatl, and thousands of others -- are those forces that have been crystallized in human cultures and worshiped as personalized emanations of a greater unknowable and unnameable power. Sometimes they assume a humanized form, as did Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and Zoroaster. We may feel a particularly loving resonance with such beings who have been elevated to godhood. By virtue of this identification, we are evoked to become much more fully what we can be in the depth and breadth of our existence. (pp.24-5)
Jean Houston’s description places Sophia in a sacred realm, beyond the human/historical and yet accessible to us, “as the contact point for sacred time and sacred space”. (p. 24)
In Goddesses in Older Women (2001), Jean Shinoda Bolen writes of Sophia as an archetype, “Goddess of Mystical and Spiritual Wisdom”. I recall the shiver of amazement I experienced when I read in She Who Is (Elizabeth Johnson, 1992) the suggestion that Jesus was himself the embodiment of the Sophia archetype! Johnson writes that Jesus lived the qualities of Sophia as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, but his historical entry into time was during a period when a woman would not be accepted as a spiritual teacher.
In Goddesses in Older Women Bolen speaks of Sophia as “a forgotten goddess figure within a monotheistic, patriarchal religious tradition that denies feminine divinity” (p.25)
Describing Sophia as “the archetype of spiritual wisdom or soul knowledge,” Bolen writes:
Sophia’s wisdom is insightful, it is what we know through gnosis….Gnostic or noetic…knowledge is what is revealed to us or intuitively perceived as spiritually true. I think of gnosis as what we “gknow” at a soul level, it’s what we know “in our bones”…. At a soul level, we can know that we are spiritual beings on a human path, or know that life has a purpose, or know that we are loved, or know God, or know that we are part of an interconnected universe.(p. 26)
For Bolen, “gnosis” is “an intuitive process of knowing oneself at the deepest level” akin to the Jungian concept of connecting to the Self where with soul knowledge we sense our life as meaningful.
“What we know through a connection with the Self is divine wisdom,” Bolen writes. “This is a wisdom that isn’t the exclusive possession of authority above us; it is the wisdom that dwells in us and is everywhere.” (p.27)
What we call “women’s intuition” is also an aspect of gnosis.
Bolen writes: Far from mysterious, it’s a combination of noticing what is going on and processing what we are noticing in an intuitive way. It has to do with knowing people, of assessing character, of seeing through the façade – it’s insight into the presence or absence of soul. The click! insight that sees the underlying sexism or power politics in a situation is gnosis. The Aha! that happens when something important to you suddenly makes sense is gnosis. The moment when you know that your spouse is unfaithful, is gnosis. That inner twinge of a guilty conscience is gnosis. (p. 27)
Heeding gnosis is a path to growing “older and wiser”:
This is how the archetype of Sophia becomes known to you. She is a way of knowing, a source of inner wisdom as well as an archetypal wisewoman. When Sophia dwells in you, you perceive the soul of the matter or soul qualities in others. (p.27)
Mystical knowing is another aspect of the Sophia archetype, one “evoked by numinous experiences.” Bolen suggests words that seek to describe numinosity: “awe, beauty, grace, divinity, ineffability”, adding that “a numinous experience is the defining moment for the woman who becomes a mystic.” Knowing God in this way “becomes the central focus of her spiritual life and her spiritual life becomes her life… she seeks to enter and stay in a mystical union with divinity.” (pp. 27-8)
With the greater freedom that women enjoy today, many “are inspired by their mystical insights” to seek a more “personally meaningful life”. Bolen notes that though most of these women would not define themselves as mystics, “their mystical experiences are at the core of what they are doing with their lives”. Freed from the need to conform to what an institutional religion may define as mysticism, “women are redefining spirituality” writes Bolen. (p. 28)
Bolen cites the example of Joanna Macy, whose mysticism matured through Buddhist meditation and deepened her already-formed concern for social justice; this led her to become an anti-nuclear and ecological activist.
As a practitioner and teacher of “deep ecology”, Joanna uses a meditative and active imaginative way of listening to plants and animals and even stones, to reach a deeply-felt mystical sense of a web of life. (p. 29)
Bolen adds that mystical experiences may also inspire writers, poets, artists. She cites Meinrad Craighead as “an artist whose mysticism and paintings have become inseparable.” (p. 29)
Yet the difficulties encountered in describing one’s mystical experiences and in having them understood lead many “contemporary Sophia’s” to become “closet mystics”, writes Bolen.
Many women who have attempted to describe their mystical insights and found themselves having to defend or justify them arrive at the conclusion that it is enough to live with this connection… (p. 30)
Bolen concludes: When Sophia is not only a source of mystical insight but is also the archetype that fully engages the attention of a woman, then it is accurate to say that she is a mystic and her Self-directed task is to find a means of expression and a way to convey the insight she has acquired. (p. 30)
Remembering the Birth of our Communion
Reflection for January 19, 2016
On a cold, clear day in mid-January, three years ago, I walked in the woods that encircle my home. The late afternoon sunset was already painting the sky in yellow-peach. Inside me, a different sort of sunset was whirling. I had just spoken with Jean Houston by phone, heard her invitation to “bring forward the legacy of religious communities into a new order of creative souls”.
I had no idea what that could mean, nor did it allure me. The words “legacy of religious communities” tasted like death.
At the end of the path through the woods, my faithful red pine waited for me. Into the harsh textured bark, I poured my confusion, my not getting it, my not wanting to understand.
I felt held by the tree. I felt it say, “Hold your roots strong. Stay in the earth”. After a while, I felt peace return.
Then a memory arose. Just before I had left the house, an email had arrived from a group I’d been invited to meet with, referring to “Brigid and her Community of Creative Fire”. Still in the tree’s embrace, I felt something open within me. What if we were to create a “Community of Creative Fire”? I began to think of beloved friends who might be drawn to such a venture….
When I returned home, I emailed Jean: “What about a Community of Creative Fire”?
“Communion ...", Jean emailed back. "I would be part of it."
So that dear friends, is how it began. My letter of invitation to friends followed on the Feast of Brigid, February 1, 2013. It said, in part:
You who are opening this email on Brigid’s Day are one of a small group of women friends whom I am inviting into a new venture, a journey into sacred mystery, a holy waiting, a deep listening.
I am seeking companions to form with me a “communion of creative fire”. Each one of us would be committed to creating space and focus in our lives for a new birth of the Sacred among us, in whatever way the Holy Presence reveals itself in our open receptive hearts. From our shared knowing of that sacred presence will come new ways of being, creating, ritual-making, releasing energy and joy.
Everywhere there is rising a call to a new way of co-creating with the Sacred. With all my heart I want to follow that call, to open my life to be, in the words of the poet Christine Webber, “a cup to catch the sacred rain”.
I seek now companions who share that passion, who are courageous enough to commit to a journey to a place we cannot yet imagine.
By February 11th, some thirty women had said “yes”. We were ready to begin. But how would we ever come together when our Communion stretched across Canada and the US?
In another “random internet pop-up” I saw that a website could be created quickly and easily. Though not quite believing this, I followed the links. By that day’s end we had our kreativefire.com website with a Gathering Place for our shared thoughts/hopes/ longings and experiences and a space for weekly Reflections.
That is the story of our birth. You each have brought the uniqueness of your own gifts to the Communion, supporting us by prayer, offering your reflections, carrying the fire of our shared commitment out to others in the radiant circle of your own life and work.
Over these three years, new women have come into our Communion, while others have walked on to a different fireside. All this is part of our story, part of the way we each honour the guidance within.
In my Sacred Hour this week, as I read that banquet of wisdom offered by the communion, I was awed by the beauty of what each of you shared, astonished to see a garden of many different flowers grown from those first seeds planted three years ago.
I prayed to Sophia to know what I am called to be and to do in and for our Communion. Here is what I heard:
- Continue to provide the Communion with a safe, warm, loving place to share their own allurement to the Holy
- *Continue to keep the ground of your own soul moist and fecund, to receive what I give you to share with them
- *Seek questions that will invite the women to journey deeper to find their own responses
- *Love these women. Be faithful to a daily holding of them in your prayer to sustain them in their journeys
- * Ask them what more they need in the Communion for their own soul-nurture
So, dear companions, I close with that question: What do you need for your own soul’s nurture? What more would you like to receive from/through the Communion?
And I invite you also to ask Sophia:
What am I called to be and to do in and for our Communion?
I will share your responses in our Gathering Place next week, as we prepare to celebrate the February 1st Feast of Brigid, our fiery Godmother, and mark with joy our re-commitment to the Communion.
“Home By Another Way”
Post-Epiphany Reflection for January 12, 2016
All through last night while the earth and all the wise creatures who live in the Ottawa Valley slept, the snow fell. Silent, unwilling to disturb our rest, the snow laid itself down, flake upon flake, layer upon layer, until the dawn’s oyster-shell light revealed a world gift-wrapped in white: an after-Christmas, post-Epiphany gift, a gift that came freely, joyously, asking for nothing but acceptance.
I waken to this mysterious bounty, light a fire in the wood-stove to soften the chill, wrap myself in a blanket, sit here at my computer to write to you about “home”.
A gift that should be for all on a planet that gives itself to us unstintingly, home is for many the least-attainable need. The very word refugee attests to our human failure to create a place where all may be at home. The plight of the millions of refugees is moving us to reach out in tiny and magnificent ways to change that reality, to offer a home to those who have none. At this moment, another planeload of Syrian Refugees is flying towards Canada, towards airports where people are waiting to welcome them to a new home.
Original artwork by Jan Richardson for “Home By Another Way” www.janrichardson.com
Over the months since returning home from Greece, I have been reflecting on “Home” as one of the most powerful metaphors of life on this planet.
John O’Donohue says: the most ancient word for “home” in every language is the word for God.
T.S. Eliot’s words shake me to my marrow:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T.S.Eliot from "Little Gidding" in The Four Quartets )
Take a moment to think about what Home means to you, what layers of meaning, flake upon flake, it lays upon the landscape of your heart.
Two of the great mythic tales that Jean Houston told during our days in Greece have a central character who is trying to get home. For Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, the journey took ten years. For Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz it took only a click of the ruby slippers once she understood… For each of these characters getting home required that they first grow up: Odysseus had to become compassionate, humble, less audaciously sure of himself, while Dorothy had to claim her own powers of heart, mind and courage. For both, home was not so much a place as a way of being, a claiming of the true self.
In the song “Already Home” in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of The Wizard of Oz, Glinda teaches Dorothy about home:
you think you’re lost but that’s not true
you simply lived a dream or two
you travelled all this way to find
you never left your home behind.
Home is a place in your heart
every journey leads you back to where you start.
Close your eyes, it’s very easy,
you’ll find that you’re already home.
We have to finish to begin,
we have to lose before we win
and soon we’ll see it isn’t far
from where we were to where we are.
Home is a place in your heart
every journey leads you back to where you start...
(“Already Home” by Andrew Lloyd Webber in Wizard of Oz)
Jan L. Richardson whose poetry illuminated our Epiphany Reflections,
offers on her website a free booklet of poetry, original artwork, and reflections:
Home By Another Way: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas.
Much of this beautiful content is centered on the theme of Home. I offer you today her Blessing for Women’s Christmas, which she titles:
“The Map You Make Yourself”
You have looked
at so many doors
wondering if your life
lay on the other side.
For today, choose the door
to the inside.
Travel the most ancient way of all:
the path that leads you
to the center of your life.
but the one
you make yourself.
but what you already carry
and the grace that comes
to those who walk
the pilgrim’s way.
Speak this blessing
as you set out
and watch how
your rhythm slows,
the cadence of the road
drawing you into the pace
that is your own.
Eat when hungry.
Rest when tired.
Listen to your dreaming.
as doors deeper in.
Pray for protection.
Ask for guidance.
for the gifts that come,
let them go.
Do not expect
by the same road.
Home is always
by another way,
and you will know it
not by the light
that waits for you
but by the star
that blazes inside you,
where you are
and you are welcome
(from: Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons © Jan Richardson. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015)
Epiphany Eve January 5, 2016
Wise Women Also Came
Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
under the light of the moon.
Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
from any king.
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
Wise women also came,
and they brought
water for labor’s washing,
¬fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.
Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.
Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.
Jan L. Richardson
On this twelfth night of Christmas, the eve of the Feast of Epiphany, when the Light of Love was revealed to the Wise Ones who followed a Star to Bethlehem, my thoughts are filled with you, my sister travellers in the Communion of Creative Fire. The words of Jan L. Richardson’s poem hold so much resonance for us on our journey as we seek a new revelation of Light and Love for our time.
There are times when I wonder at the audacity of what we have set out to do in and through our Communion. So it is heartening to read that Wise Women seek “no directions, no permission”; rather they come “by their own authority, their own desire, their own longing.”
It is important for us to remember this, to encourage one another as we follow a star that may not always be clear in the night sky. It is important that we keep the fire burning in our wombs, continuing to trust that the way will open “under the light of the moon”.
As we reflect on light and wisdom this Epiphany, I invite you to spend time in your Sacred Hour to consider your commitment to our Communion. For some of you this began as a “Yes” to an invitation sent to you three years ago on the Feast of Brigid, February 1, 2013. In these three years, our shared experience has deepened and strengthened the original vision; and in three years each of us has grown and changed. Those of you whose invitation to be part of the Communion is more recent have encountered an already maturing vision.
For each of you, whether you have been part of the Communion for years or for months, I offer now an invitation to make a commitment to this shared journey.
As we travel on, we need to know we are with women who are fully engaged in the quest. I ask that you read the description of our Commitment, attached to the January 5, 2016 email. Test it in the fire of your heart. Find out whether it resonates with your own desire and longings. If it does, I ask you to send the renewal form (attached to the January 5th email) back to me as an email on or before the Feast of Brigid, February 1, 2016.
Some of you who have travelled with us for a time may find now that other realities in your life and ministry make continued engagement in this commitment impossible. If I do not hear from you by February 1st, I shall respect your choice to withdraw, trusting that you will still hold those of us who remain in love and prayer. Please note that beginning February 2nd, the weekly postings will be sent only to those who have emailed their commitment forms.
On this Eve of Epiphany, to assist you in your discernment about your commitment to the Communion, I offer to you this Blessing from the writings of Jan L. Richardson:
For Those Who Have Far to Travel
A Blessing for Epiphany
If you could see
the journey whole,
you might never
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
as it comes into
There is nothing
but to go,
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:
to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond what would
from the way.
There are vows
that only you
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
you could not
Keep them, break them,
make them again;
each promise becomes
part of the path,
each choice creates
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel
to offer the gift
the gift that only you
before turning to go
Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Words from Christina Rossetti’s poem rise in me as I sit here at my computer, facing the window where “snow (has) fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow”. On this bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas day, I am wondering what words to send out to you, dear friends in the Communion of Creative Fire, words that might bring hope, awaken joy, and remind you (and me) of the work that awaits us now that Christmas has come.
On Christmas morning, my family’s pastor and friend Father Michael recalled words of Pope Francis. Speaking of Christmas celebrations, Francis called them a “sham” when we live in the midst of a world so riddled with wars. “Grinch” was Michael’s first response to the Pope’s words, he admitted… but he went on to accept the challenge that Francis issued. Michael ended his Christmas homily with a poem by American theologian Howard Thurman:
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
Now the work of Christmas begins….that awareness sends me to seek guidance from other writers whose words illumine our lives. I turn first to Jean Houston, and find this Christmas message on her Facebook page:
Throughout history and all over the world, people have felt a yearning to be more, a longing to push the membrane of the possible. Never so much more as those living today. People feel called to a life of new being. Much of the urgency that you may have felt these last years moving between stress and distress, the sense of living in an outmoded condition, the exhilaration before what is not yet, the dread of leaving the womb of the old era - comes from the birth pangs of a human and social evolution that is upon us.
Birth is a journey. Second birth is as great a journey. In the womb of new becoming it means laying down new pathways in the body and in the senses to take in the news of this remarkable world. It means extending the field of your psychology so that there is more of you to do so much of this. It demands that you choose a richer, juicier story, even a new myth, by which to comprehend your life and that you begin to live out of it. And, most important of all, it asks that you be sourced and re-sourced in God, spirit, the cosmic mind, the quantum field, - the love that moves the sun and all of the stars. (Jean Houston)
In the same spirit the poet Rilke urges:
Please celebrate this Christmas with the earnest faith that (God) may need this very anguish of yours in order to begin….Be patient and without resentment, and know that the least we can do is to make His Becoming no more difficult than Earth makes it for spring when it wants to arrive. Be comforted and glad. (Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke)
You and I hold within us such immense promise, such impossible possibility, in the “womb of new becoming” that Jean describes. Already we have experienced moments of knowing the “richer juicier story”, the “new myth” that we are invited to choose, to live. Already we have experienced moments of knowing ourselves sourced in “the love that moves the sun and all of the stars”.
So let us “be comforted and glad” as we open to the newness descending into our heart’s womb, falling like “snow on snow”, until all the space is filled with new life.
I offer to you a blessing for your new life in these words that poet Jan L. Richardson imagines Elizabeth speaking to Mary:
be thou blessed.
be thou blessed.
In all you choose
in all you hold
in all you gather to you
be thou blessed.
In all you release
in all you return
in all you cast from you
be thou blessed.
In all that takes form in you
in all that comes forth from you
in all thy paths
be thou forever blessed.
Jan L. Richardson
Solstice/ Chrstmas 2015
If you grew up Catholic in the years before the Second Vatican Council, chances are Mary was at the very heart of your faith. You prayed the “Hail Mary” many times daily; you sang hymns to Mary as you walked in May processions carrying flowers to decorate her statue; in every trouble and doubt, in every dark moment of your own life, you turned to her as to a mother whose love for you was unconditional. You probably knew by heart the “Memorare”, a prayer to Mary that says, in part, “Remember…Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided…”
In the mid-1960's, at the call of Pope John 23rd, 2600 Roman Catholic Bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. Believing they were restoring a balance, they invited Mary to step from her throne, and guided her gently to a place among the faithful, the followers of her son, Jesus. The “excesses” of Marian devotion were curbed… and then what happened?
Over the past fifty years since the closing of the Vatican Council in 1965, we have seen a burgeoning of interest in the “Sacred Feminine”; a recovery of ancient stories of the Goddess; archaeological finds that create renewed interest in the time when the Sacred One was honoured as a woman; an explosion of writing among theologians, historians, cultural storytellers, seeking to understand the power and presence of “Mary” in the Christian story.
I will cite a few here: The Virgin by Geoffrey Ashe; Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak; Untie the Strong Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Truly Our Sister by Elizabeth Johnson.
Though I am no theologian, I have a consuming interest in the many aspects of this mystery. What I glimpse is this: the human heart longs for a divine mothering presence. Ancient cultures honoured a feminine divine who over millennia was called by many names: Isis in Egypt; Inanna in Sumeria; Ishtar in Babylon; Athena, Hera and Demeter in Greece, Anu or Danu among the ancient Celts; Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in India; for the Kabbalists, Shekinah; for the gnostics, Sophia or Divine Wisdom.
Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. Geoffrey Ashe’s theory is that Mary’s gradual ascension in Christianity was not an initiative of Church Leadership, but rather a response to the hunger of the early Christians for a sacred feminine presence.
How it came about is less interesting to me than the reality that Mary became for us an opening to a loving feminine sacred presence. Or, put another way, a loving sacred feminine presence responded to the cries of her people when they called her “Mary”, just as that presence had responded over the millennia to other names cried out in love or sorrow or desperate need.
Over these darkening days as we descend to the longest night of the year at the Winter Solstice, Mary will be our companion. We reflect on her pregnancy, her waiting, her uncertainty, the doubts of those who love her, the trust that sustains her “while she opens deeper into the ripple in her womb…” as John O’Donohue has written.
No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.
Even the moon leaves her when she opens
Deeper into the ripple in her womb
That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.
Someone is coming ashore inside her.
A face deciphers itself from water
And she curves around the gathering wave,
Opening to offer the life it craves.
In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,
She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.
A red wire of pain feeds through every vein
Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.
Outside each other now, she sees him first.
Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.
John O’Donohue from Connemara Blues
(Doubleday, Great Britain, 2000; Bantam Books, 2001)
This is profound mystery. For Mary. For each one of us who carries the Holy within us, seeking a place of birth. We walk the dark road, with Mary, in trust.
We walk companioned by one who knows our struggles to maintain our trust in the face of inner doubts and outer calamity.
We walk with one who loves us and encourages us until we are ready to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”
In the morning
When I began to wake,
It happened again…..
That you Beloved,
Had stood over me all night
that as soon as I began to stir
You put your lips on my forehead
And lit a Holy Lamp
Inside my heart.
(Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky:
I Heard God Laughing )
Who among us does not yearn for such a presence of love? And yet the beauty of Wisdom-Sophia is that we have only to desire her in order to find her:
Do you desire Me?
Come to Me!
Do you crave Me?
Eat My fruit!
Even the Memory of Me is sweeter than honey,
And to possess Me is sheer ecstasy.
(The Book of Sirach 24:19-20)
Reflecting on these words, Shapiro writes:
When it comes to Wisdom let your desire guide you. Take Her and eat of Her and do so without reserve or hesitation. She wants you to want Her, and desires to give Herself to all who hunger for Her.
And if we fear losing her, or even if we know we have in the past both found and lost, Shapiro encourages us that
the Memory of Her love will stay with you and push you to seek Her again…. Her gifts of simplicity and grace cannot be matched. And when you receive them, the narrow self is overcome with joy and the spacious self unfolds in bliss.
For each one of us, May it be so! (And so it is!)
On this rain-washed, sun-warmed, July day I began to write what I thought would be the final reflection on Wisdom-Sophia. Final, not because the writings were complete, but because I had come to the end of what I knew, what I had read, what I could reference about her.
A memory stirred of a You-tube link sent to us in April by Maureen, an interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro about the Sophia of the Hebrew Scriptures. That led me to his ebook,The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature (Skylight Illuminations, 2005) where I have been meandering for the past several hours, finding treasure, hidden in plain sight, in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In his Preface, Rabbi Shapiro tells of being pursued by the Sacred Feminine:
I began to see her everywhere. She started talking to me….She intruded on my meditation and prayer time, and just would not leave me alone….She had me. I would go for walks late at night and talk with her.
His friend Andrew Harvey advised that he had best surrender, adding: “She calls to everyone, and to ignore her is to ignore the greatest gift you may ever be offered: the passionate embrace of the Mother. She is going to hound you until she has you, and then She is going to strip you of all your ideas and notions until there is nothing left to you but the ecstasy of her embrace.”
Still Shapiro struggled, for it seemed to him that the presence was the Virgin Mary, someone he could not commit to as a Jew.
Andrew said to me, “It isn’t Mary, but the Mother. She comes to the Christian as the Blessed Virgin; She comes to you as Chochma, Mother Wisdom.” And with that my whole life changed.
Shapiro writes: Chochma, the Hebrew word for “wisdom”, is the manifestation of the Divine Mother as She appears in the Hebrew Bible. She is the first manifestation of God, the vehicle of His unfolding, the Way of nature, the way God is God in the world you and I experience every day. Seeing her as Chochma removed the last of my defenses. I stopped running away, and gave myself to Her as best I could.
As he began to share Her teachings as found in the Jewish Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, Shapiro found his listeners “began to relax”, not because he had made Her ”kosher” but rather because “what they heard in the text was what they somehow already knew in their hearts”.
As Shapiro began to move through the Hebrew Scriptures, citing passages, reflecting upon them, I also felt I was hearing what I “somehow already knew in (my) heart."
See if this is also how it is for you.
In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom/ Sophia/ Chochma speaks:
The Lord created Me at the beginning of His work, the first of His ancient acts.
I was established ages ago, at the beginning of the beginning, before the earth…
When He established the heavens, I was already there.
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
When he established the fountains feeding the seas below…
I was beside Him, the master builder.
I was His daily delight, rejoicing before Him always.
Rejoicing in His inhabited world, and delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8: 22-31)
Shapiro writes that “Chochma ….is the ordering principle of creation”: She embraces one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well. (Wisdom of Solomon 8:11)
To know her, Shapiro adds, is to know the Way of all things and thus to be able to act in harmony with them. To know the Way of all things and to act in accord with it is what it means to be wise.
To know Wisdom is to become wise. To become wise is to find happiness and peace: Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all Her paths are peace. She is a Tree of Life to those who lay hold of Her; those who hold Her close are happy. (Proverbs 3: 17-18)
Moreover, writes Shapiro: Wisdom is not to be taken on faith. She is testable. If you follow Her you will find joy, peace and happiness not at the end of the journey but as the very stuff of which the journey is made. This is crucial. The reward for following Wisdom is immediate. The Way to is the Way of.
Shapiro teaches that the key to awakening that is Wisdom is having a clear perception of reality. Wisdom does not lead you to this clarity; She is this clarity….The Way to Wisdom is Wisdom Herself. You do not work your way toward Her; you take hold of Her from the beginning. As your relationship deepens, your clarity of seeing improves, but from the beginning you have Her and She has you.
I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine. (Song of Songs 2:16)
Chochma is not a reluctant guide or a hidden guru, Shapiro writes. She is not hard to find nor does she require any austere test to prove you are worthy of Her. Rather She stands on the hilltops, on the sidewalks, at the crossroads, at the gateways (Proverbs 8:1-11) and calls to you to follow Her. Wisdom’s only desire is to teach you to become wise. Her only frustration is your refusal to listen to Her.
….To know Wisdom is to be her lover, and by loving Her, you become God’s beloved as well.
In our becoming partners, co-creating with Wisdom:
Wisdom will not tell why things are the way they are, but will show you what they are and how to live in harmony with them….Working with Wisdom, you learn how…to make small, subtle changes that effect larger ones. You learn how to cut with the grain, tack with the wind, swim with the current, and allow the nature of things to support your efforts. She will not tell you why things are the way they are, but She will make plain to you what things are and how you deal with them to your mutual benefit. (from the Introduction)
Sophia: Love that Transforms our Lives: Part Two
As I continue to reflect on how my life has changed since my dedication to Sophia, the sacred feminine presence, I realize my loving relationships have expanded in unexpected ways. Now the list of “those I love” includes a tree to whose presence I turn when I seek healing for myself and others; a small chipmunk who enjoys eating her lunch beside me on the back deck; a family of phoebes who nest each spring above the porch light; the Iris plant that blooms in delicate splendour each June; the heron who moves down the river with slow grace, her wings weighted only with sunlight and soft winds; wild roses unattended, spilling gifts of perfumed beauty; the people I encounter at the Post Office, the Waste Depot, the Library here in my small town, once peripheral, growing close to my heart….
Jean Houston teaches that when we love we become more intelligent, more creative, as we open to the patterns in the universe, as we glimpse the wonder of life and the wonder in ourselves. Speaking during her July 2014 Seminar, “Love in the Quantum Field”, Jean urged us to open the love receptor in all possible directions, the evolutionary and loving lure that has to rise in our time if we are to keep going. Patterns of connection activated by love are being brought out of the DNA, “bootstrapped into the culture”, Jean says. This transformation, this evolution, is taking place in our lifetime.
For Carol P. Christ, writing in The Rebirth of the Goddess(1997), hope is possible if we use the “human powers of reflection and moral action” that we once thought “set us apart from nature” to “create a new place for human beings within the web of life.” (p. 155)
Though thinking and acting (wrongly) have created many of the problems we and the Gaia body now face, human hope can only be located in the human capacity to think and to act differently about our place in the web of life….We act morally when we live in conscious and responsible awareness of the intrinsic value of each being with whom we share life on earth. When we do so, we embody the love that is the ground of all being. (p. 156)
Carol Christ believes that love forms the basis of morality:
…we have each experienced the power of intelligent love that grounds all beings in the web of life. This can become the basis for morality and moral transformation. None of us is perfect, nor can we be expected to be. What is asked of us as we work to heal the web of life is that we return the love and nurture given to us and that we try to contribute just a little bit more to the lives of all people and all beings than those who came before us.
If we value our feelings of deep connection, if we love life on its own account and through others, and if we find the courage to act together on what we know, then maybe, just maybe, we can build a better future for ourselves, our children, and all the other children of earth. (pp. 158-9)
In her final chapter, Christ shares with us nine touchstones or ethical guidelines which she has discovered within her experience of the web of life. As we reflect upon them, we may see how some or all of these might serve us in our lives, which ones we would set aside, which others we would add.
*Walk in love and beauty
*Trust the knowledge that comes through the body
*Speak the truth about conflict, pain and suffering
*Take only what you need
*Think about consequences of your actions for seven generations
*Approach the taking of life with great restraint
*Practice great generosity
*Repair the web
Christ ends her book with this hope, this promise:
If we focus on the beauty around us, if we love life on its own account and through others, if we trust the knowledge that comes to us through our bodies, we will find the strength to continue the work of personal, cultural, and social transformation.
If we speak the best of ourselves and others while at the same time speaking the truth about the harm that has been done, perhaps we all will recognize that it is in our own best interest to care about the survival of the web of life. Then we can begin again to create communities and societies that live in greater harmony and justice with other people, all our relations, and the earth body. (p. 177)
What shines brightest for me in Jean Houston’s teachings about “Love in the Quantum Field”, is her call to loving partnership with the Divine Beloved. This, says Jean, is the Great Lure that will draw us forward, opening us in love to all the realms of being. It involves an intensive practice, a daily practice of spiritual exercise, learning how to commit, to make the conscious choice of loving.
“You will discover,” Jean says, “that the universe is alive and loving. As you move towards it, it moves towards you.”
Sophia: Love that Transforms our Lives
Once we take our first steps towards a Sacred Feminine Presence, welcoming her into our lives, change begins. In Rebirth of the Goddess (1997), Carol P. Christ writes of how turning towards the presence she names “the Goddess” altered her life. Her book reflects her new view of religion, politics, ecology, life, death, relationships, morality, the meaning of existence….
Reading Christ’s book has led me to reflect on how my own life has been altered through coming to know Sophia. I realize that the change began when I first recognized that there is a feminine path to the Holy that differs in important ways from the masculine path. The masculine path was shown to me as I grew up in a Church where the priests, spiritual writers, theologians were mostly men (or women who had embraced the masculine way of holiness).
The feminist theologians, writing in the last third of the twentieth century, used their powerful intellects, their theological training, and their own experience to show that the “objective” masculine teachings, thought to apply to all humankind, actually reflected the masculine way to God.
The feminist theologians found the heart of the difference between the masculine and feminine ways to be the perceived dualities in Greek thought: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman.
More than a separation, there was a perceived hierarchy. Spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman. This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the earth, above the human experience.
Embracing this worldview, I had embraced an ideal of spiritual life that led me to distrust love, to be cautious with emotion, to value thought over feeling. I had learned to distrust my desires, my body, my sexuality, all of which, I’d been warned, would lead me astray, away from God. I learned to embrace an ideal of perfection, though I never succeeded in living it out.
Through the writings of the feminist theologians, I learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the earth, of the body, of my feelings, of my sexuality.
At this time in the story of our planet Earth, such a recovery is vital. The sacred presence of love lives within all of life, within the earth herself, within the creatures that walk, swim, fly, crawl upon and within her. Only this knowing can give us the courage and the strength we need for the work we are called to do with the earth as she heals from the ravages of our despoiling of her.
In the sixth chapter of her book, “The Web of Life”, Christ writes compellingly of this call:
To know ourselves as of this earth is to know our deep connection to all people and beings. All beings are interdependent in the web of life….We feel deeply within ourselves that we are part of all that is, but we must learn to speak of what we know. We know, too, that we participate fully in the earth’s cycles of birth, death, and regeneration….
The fundamental insight of connection to all beings in the web of life is experienced by children, poets, mystics, and indeed, I suspect, by all of us, though we may lack the language to express what we feel….
Acknowledging the difficulty of speaking of this deep connection “in the face of criticism rooted in dualistic thinking”, Christ quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote of his “I-Thou” relation to a tree:
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: as rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
(Martin Buber, I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970 pp. 58-59)
Christ finds in the writings of Susan Griffin a recognition of “This Earth” as intelligent and aware:
I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst, in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster.
(Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her New York, Harper and Row, 1978 p. 219)
A beautiful reweaving of dualities into wholeness flows from our embrace of Sophia/Sacred Feminine/Goddess. Here is Carol Christ’s celebration of the insight into oneness intuited by children, mystics and poets:
If Goddess is an intelligent power that is fully embodied in the world, then the notion that divinity, nature and humanity are three totally distinct categories collapses. If Goddess as fully embodied intelligent love is the ground of all being, then it makes sense to speak of intelligence and love as rising out of the very nature of being and of all beings as intelligent and infused with love. Human intelligence and our capacity to love do not separate us from nature. Instead, everything we are arises from the nature of being, from our grounding in the earth. (p. 123)
Sophia in Women’s Voices
I am aching to speak,
but a woman’s voice is, they say, the voice of demons.
What do we need to hear from a woman, but evil?
And then, finally, my friends wearied of my excuses.
Volmar and Richardis said, “Enough.
I have found a way of speaking,
not in trance, not in heavenly vision, not in mysterious sounds;
I speak through the power of story.
I write pictures; I make visible in paint
that which I see in my prayer.
Now they call me mystic, visionary, holy Abbess;
but it is I, the same Hildegarde.
Nothing in me has changed
except that I have found my voice.
(from “When I Was Five”, inspired by Hildegarde of Bingen, by Mary T. Malone in Praying with the Women Mystics)
Today this poem speaks to me with greater urgency. Reading the work of thealogian Carol P. Christ in Rebirth of the Goddess (1997) and She Who Changes (2003) I feel as though I were engaged in an archaeological dig into millennia of layers of women’s subjugation, women’s voices feared and silenced as “the voice of demons”. I see now how that fear and subjugation led to the denial of a more ancient feminine sacred presence.
Hildegarde’s experience, so movingly retold in Malone’s poem, was a thousand years before our lifetimes… yet women today continue to seek for their authentic voices, to claim them at last. (Though it is a proscription not always observed, a woman is still not allowed to give a homily in a Roman Catholic Church.)
What would happen if each one of us, like Hildegarde, like the many women who have found their voices, spoke openly of what we see in prayer, of our hopes for the planet, our critiques of the powers that still hold sway in our countries’ political, economic and ecological decisions?
How would our lives be different?
That question led me into the dark recesses of my bookshelves. I unearthed a slim brown volume: I Sit Listening to the Wind (Judith Duerk, LuraMedia, San Diego, California, 1993). Holding it in my hand, I remembered the day, more than twenty years ago, when I found it in the bookstore at the Galilee Centre in Arnprior. At the time, it had power to reshape my life.
Here are three excerpts from Duerk’s wonderful book:
How might your life have been different if, one morning in the earliest springtime, something had drawn you to the woods? And in the cool mist, you had seen women of all ages, from every epoch in history, waiting in the stillness.
And you had knelt among them…had heard the trembling in the voices of the older women as they spoke of preparation, of individual sacrifice…of woman offering out of her own uniqueness, her suffering, her devotion. And if, as you listened, you had a glimmer of hope that your work to develop yourself might make a tiny difference…help heal an ancient Archetype…restore a longed-for balance in the greater cosmos.
And you felt a sense of wonder, knowing that each woman kneeling there was wondering inside herself what her offering would be.
How might your life be different? (p. 101)
How might your life have been different if, through the years, you had felt that there would finally be time enough for you?
If, very early in the morning… as you sat at your window seat and watched a silvery mist slowly rise from the meadow… you heard, far off in the distance, the cry of the wild geese?
And you remembered the first time you had heard that cry, many years before… with a chill up the back of your neck?
And that you had known, even then, that the haunting primordial cry… was the call of the ancient Feminine returning?
How might your life be different? (p. 95)
How might your life have been different if, once, as you sat in silence in your place of reflection, someone had given you a small silken bag…and invited you to fill it from your conscious woundedness… from your deepest awareness as woman… and lastly, from your joy?
If, as you raised your eyes, you had seen the Great Goddess on a hillside
…gleaning with her daughters
...gleaning through the measureless epochs of time
...for a renewed sense
of the sacred Feminine,
and you knew that you would join them
to fill the bag anew.
How might your life be different? (p. 29)
Take time with these images, allowing yourself to sense their power to make your life different. Then listen to these words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as though they were being spoken directly to you by the sacred Feminine presence:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose Me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give Me your hand.
(from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books, 1996)
Sophia’s Presence in Sacred Places
During these June days of prodigal greening and flowering, I sit outdoors reading Carol P. Christ’s Rebirth of the Goddess (Addison Wesley Pub., 1997), as I watch the Bonnechere River make its slow way towards the Ottawa. I read of ancient cultures where the source of the life that permeates earth was honoured as Goddess. I read that this deep knowing was eroded as warfare and practices of domination superseded the earlier harmony of cultures that lived close to the earth. Myths were shaped to tell of the slaying of the goddess by masculine power. It is a long, long story of which we have only recovered fragments. Yet glimpses of that time can still be found in sacred sites on the planet.
Carol Christ, who lived in Greece for many years, exploring ancient sites, temples, caverns, found that at the site of an ancient temple, “there is almost always a church.”
A memory comes to me of standing at the site of the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone about twenty kilometers from Athens. Our guide pointed up to a small white church atop a piece of land that had not been excavated. “That is a Church dedicated to Mary,” she said. “We find that a Church built to honour Mary almost always indicates that there is an ancient temple to the goddess below.”
Church dedicted to Mary (top right) hovers over the excavated site of the Eleusinian Mysteries
Carol Christ writes that modern Greeks who speak their deepest needs to the Mother of God after making a pilgrimage to a beautiful place are not much different from their ancient ancestors who brought offerings to Goddess Mother. I began to light candles and open my heart in places filled by other pilgrims. As I did so, I realized that the Goddess had never died. She could not die because she was in the land, she was the land. (p. 42)
Three years ago in Ireland, I encountered that same sacred presence.
Its grey-black weathered stones still shaped walls and openings for windows, but the small church on Achill Island, just off the west coast of Ireland, had long since lost its roof.
The June morning was cool, ruffled by soft winds, as we twelve women stood under the slate-grey sky around the plain stone altar. We had come here seeking an ancient holy well, dedicated to the early Christian Saint Dymphna, credited with healings, especially of those afflicted with mental illness. Dymphna was fleeing from her father, a pagan Irish king. Her pathways were marked by sacred wells, remnants of a tradition that predates Celtic Christianity. People sought healing at such wells, believed to be the openings of the body of our Mother Earth.
As we stood around that altar, we were dimly aware that we were standing where women have been, in recent centuries, forbidden to stand. With that awareness, an inner strength moved within us, along with a joy that had no words. One of women in our group read a poem by Denise Levertov:
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen
The fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes
found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched—but not because
she grudged the water,
only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,
it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,
up and out through the rock.
With these words still echoing, we walked outdoors, found our way through the old graveyard where in past centuries people from all across the island brought their dead for burial.
We found the well of Dymphna on a piece of low ground just metres from the edge of the sea, its small opening protected by a circle of stones. We stood there, ourselves a circle, praying silently for those in need of healing.
At the holy well on Achill Island, Ireland. Can you find four members of our Communion of Creative Fire?
One of the women, kneeling to take a photo, discovered a heart-shaped rock, one side deeply carved and creased with lines of breakage, now healed; another picked up a stone with the clear shape of a mother and child. For both these women, the stones held a reflection of their lives.
I walked a little way past the well and saw a small stream of running water. Without knowing why I felt drawn to do so, I knelt and scooped up water, placing it on my forehead, on my heart. Later that day, I realized with a shiver of wonder that it was the 70th anniversary of my baptism.
The moment would return to me quite suddenly almost a year later during a week of study on Cape Cod with Jean Houston and some fifteen others, including our Communion members Jennifer, Natacha and Rosemary. Jean spoke of the ancient practice of placing a terma, a spiritual gift at a place and a time in the past or future.
I wanted to leave a blessing for the discovery of the sacred feminine presence. Where would someone go looking for this? For the past, I chose Brigid’s monastery in Kildare. For the future, I chose the holy well on Achill Island, thinking some woman might in the future seek the feminine holy there….
In a moment of pure wonder I knew that the future and past had merged: that already my blessing had borne fruit, in my own encounter there the previous June.
That moment marks a sacred beginning. My life continues to be interwoven with a loving presence for whom I have no name.
Within her is a spirit intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
active, incisive, unsullied,
lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,
irresistible, beneficent, loving to humankind,
steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
penetrating all intelligent, pure
and most subtle spirits;
for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;
she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.
(Book of Wisdom 7:22-24, Jerusalem Bible)
Where have you recently encountered this mysterious presence that “pervades and permeates all things”? If you are a gardener you have glimpsed her in the long-awaited blossoming of a plant, emerging from winter’s sleep. If you are a grandmother, you have seen her shining in the eyes of a baby. If you are attentive, you have sensed her presence within you in a moment of deep peace, sudden knowing, a release of love or of power that startled you…
This is Wisdom/Sophia whom Teilhard knew to be within the heart of all that exists, whom Hildegard celebrated in song, and Julian wrote about in her Revelations of Divine Love, whom mystics like Etty Hillesum found within herself even in Auschwitz, whom poets from Milton to Wordsworth to Blake to Emily Dickinson to Mary Oliver celebrate in words that sing within us…
Still we might pass days, weeks, years, perhaps even a whole lifetime, without knowing her.
Awareness comes with opening our eyes to the wonder, the surprising joy of this presence within and around us. On Sunday I removed my skeptic’s cloak, went out to the garden to seek the presence of wisdom in a plant.
Carefully following the guidance on a CD by Starhawk, I first asked the plant’s permission to befriend her, then sensing her agreement (truly!) I imagined myself small enough to enter her leafy greenness, to experience life from within her.
Here is what I later recorded:
This plant in my garden is awakened by the sun’s appearance in the east, inviting her to live a new day. I recalled suddenly the words of Ezechiel: “Live and grow like the grass in the fields”. Was this the plant’s wisdom for me?
I turned towards the south whose warmth engenders life within this plant, asking what I needed to engender new life from within.
I turned west, towards the winds loved by poets that ruffle the leaves of this plant, soothing, caressing. I remembered friends whose gentle winds of love sustained me through times of inner turmoil.
I faced north, the place of transformation. What is north for this plant? Winter, I thought, imagining her glossy green leaves brittle, brown, broken. Winter when she must let go of all she cherishes, feeling it blown away by cold winds until nothing remains but her buried roots. Under the snow-covered garden, she endures the long wait through darkness until her new life emerges with spring.But would she know about spring?
I found my thoughts turning to my own life, to the way I resist recurring cycles of loss and transformation, as though I too were ignorant of the way spring must follow winter. I looked at my plant, admiring her steady presence, her calm acceptance of the rhythms of life…. As plants have been for thousands of years, she has become my wisdom-teacher.
Since that encounter, I have been foraging through bookshelves, seeking to know how others have met this mysterious sacred presence. In Goddesses and the Divine Feminine by Rosemary Radford Ruether (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005) I found a story from the life experience of Carol P. Christ, a writer whose work has been an inspiration to me.
(Carol Christ) went through a period of deep depression in the early 1990s. An intense love relationship had ended. She felt unable to write, experiencing writer’s block. Feelings of isolation and failure and the fear that she was unlovable resurfaced and brought suicidal thoughts. She even felt abandoned by the Goddess and was angry at her. The refrain, “no one loves you, no one will ever love you, you might as well die” echoed in her mind. She spent most of her time renovating a newly purchased apartment in Athens, hoping to welcome her parents to Greece for their first visit. Instead, she received word that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Christ’s trip back to her parents’ home to be with her mother in her dying days became a revelatory turning point. As her mother died, Christ felt bathed in an ambiance of love and experienced the deepest nature of the universe as embodied love. This experience decisively resolved her uncertainty as to whether the Goddess was simply a metaphor for oneself or the sum total of an indifferent “nature”… or whether the Goddess represented an embodied personal power within and beyond us who cares for us. Christ now felt that she had the experiential basis for clearly choosing the latter view. (p. 287)
Carol Christ identifies as Goddess this embodied love, this mysterious presence whom others call Wisdom Sophia. Call to her by any name you choose. She will be there.
Women Who Weave
Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance --
only with the musings of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright, silk against roughness,
pulling the tenets of a life together
with no more will to mastery,
(Adrienne Rich from “Transcendental Etudes”)
Last week I shared with you my experience of the Brighid Festival at Brescia College in London Ontario, offering some insights from Mary Condren who called Brighid the “acceptable face” of woman’s divinity.
At a Brighid event at Brescia a few years earlier, Mary Condren had said that
Brighid was a Peace Weaver, the name given to distinguished women in Old European times. Such women had great negotiating skills and authority. Today, weavers and nurturers – activists, parents, caregivers, and educators – continue to weave webs of empowerment. They cultivate matrix rather than hierarchy; their authority is fragile, rather than heroic…they weave the threads of life into webs of community.
Those words also describe the women whom I met at the Festival, women who are quietly weaving through the lives of those they love and serve. These women spoke of their grandchildren, with a passionate concern that they might have a future on this planet, a concern that has turned them into fiery activists for the preservation of the environment; these women spoke of empowering other women who are seeking to replant their lives, women who are creating beauty out of brokenness, offering during the days of the Festival a colourful display of jewellery, woven and knitted shawls; these women spoke of their gardens, their hands still loamy with the work of spring, of pulling weeds, preparing the soil, setting plants, their souls nourished by the smell of wet earth, the quiet joy that comes from being in the company of beauty. Like the woman in Adrienne Rich’s poem, these women are weaving with their lives, quietly laying colour, fabric, shape and substance side by side… they are living from the breath of Sophia.
As Elizabeth Johnson writes:
Sophia-God is in solidarity with those who suffer as a mystery of empowerment. With moral indignation, concern for the broken creation, and a sympathy calling for justice, the power of God’s compassionate love enters the pain of the world to transform it from within. The victory is not on the model of conquering heroism but of active, nonviolent resistance, as those who are afflicted are empowered to take up the cause of resistance, healing, and liberating for themselves and others.
(in She Who Is Crossroad Pub. N.Y., 1999 p. 270)
Listening to the stories of women who came to celebrate Brighid, I heard of faith journeys that had led away from the religious structures, away from the synagogues and churches of their childhood, into labyrinthine paths in search of soul nourishment, exploring ancient earth rituals, discovering love in relationships that anchored them in peace and happiness, yet kept them still searching....
What is it about Brighid, I wondered, that lures Catholics, Christians of many traditions, as well as Jewish, and neo-Pagan women, drawing them home?
I remembered the legend that Brighid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, foreshadowing Brighid’s role as a “threshold” woman. With a pagan chieftain for her father and a mother who was Christian, Brighid was born just as Christianity was becoming established in Ireland. It was a peaceful merging, as the old Irish saying goes, “with nary a martyr” for the early Christian priests who came to Ireland had the wisdom to learn from the Druids, keeping many of their earth–honouring rituals. Some stories say that Brighid herself was taught by Druids before she became a nun.
Now I am wondering whether the attraction that Brighid holds in this new time of rebirthing might be a continuation of her call as “threshold” person, her role as weaver, holding the threads of our passion for the earth, our newly-discovered wonder at the astonishing power and beauty of our universe, and weaving these with the threads still worth cherishing in the richness of the Hebrew Scripture writings on Wisdom-Sophia, in the Christian call to love, and mercy, in the writings of Christian mystics and poets.
I wonder if this is not also our call as women who carry Brighid’s Creative Fire in our hearts, in our lives. Perhaps we, like women of old, who were sometimes buried with their shuttles, symbols of their power, will be honoured for our weaving of a new spirituality.
How may we weave, from within an experience of the universe unimagined by earlier generations, a way of knowing the Beloved that will respond to the longings of women and men of our time ?
Something to ponder during our sacred hour….
Sacred Flame, Holy Well
Above us, the young moon glowed, a silver white earring in the early evening sky. More than a hundred women entered the labyrinth, moving quickly, purposefully, along its pathways towards the centre. There, a smooth-barked tree lifted her leafy arms. There, each woman paused, removed a shawl or a scarf to fling over the branches where it would receive the dew of Brigid’s blessing at dawn.
This was one of the sacred rituals of a three-day festival dedicated to Brigid at Brescia College in London, Ontario, Canada. Organized by The Circle Women’s Centre, founded at Brescia in 1990, the Brigid Festival has been held there for the past nine years, nourished by the wisdom and Brigid scholarship of Mary Condren, National Director of Woman Spirit Ireland, and Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Working collaboratively with Mary for this year’s festival were Starhawk who is an ecofeminist, ritual leader, and political activist; Margie Gillis, who works internationally on the connections between dance and conflict transformation; and Michelle LeBaron, scholar and conflict transformation practitioner. Together, they wove a multi-faceted weekend of spirituality, action, ritual and learning, inspired by a woman whose presence and power were palpable: Brigid herself.
In January of 2013 when our Communion emerged from the mists of possibility, we chose a name that connects us with Brigid, with her sacred fire that was kept alive for hundreds of years in Kildare, Ireland. But it was not until this past weekend that I experienced the power and depth of her legacy, that I glimpsed what might be possible for us as we grow into our call as a Communion of Creative Fire. I decided I would write this week’s Reflection on the experience, even as I was aware that words can convey only a hint of the power that rose within and among us as we danced, sang, performed sacred ritual, listened to the teachings of Mary Condren and Starhawk and learned from the women gathered together whose lives are inspired by the Fire of Activism and nourished by the Waters of Compassion.
On Thursday evening before the Festival, Starhawk spoke to some five hundred people about the crisis facing our earth. For her sacred text, she chose Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. For hope, inspiration and direction, Starhawk called on Brigid, pausing in the midst of mind-numbing facts and photos of burning oil wells, flooding seas, nuclear disasters, polluted waters, land ravaged by drought to sing the chant: “Holy Well and Sacred Flame” then to ask, "What Would Brigid Do?"
Starhawk suggested Brigid’s responses: honour water so that to defile it would be morally unacceptable; transform polluted waters (there are ways to do this!), rehydrate the earth; promote an alternate world-view based on interdependence where good food and fresh water are available to everyone; leave the oil and gas in the ground; work towards a low carbon future, finding ways to sequester carbon in the soil; engage in activism that will create enough power to bring the powerful corporate polluters to our table; stand up to say NO to oil pipelines; organize locally using whatever gifts and skills we have: educating/ researching/ negotiating/ mobilizing/acting. Find our power, find our gift.
Stand with the indigenous people and with them take our responsibility as guardians of the earth. Community is an antidote to Climate Change.
Starhawk called “austerity” programs a form of theft: a neo-feudalism. Brigid’s life teaches that generosity creates abundance. We need a new imagination to face down the fear that arises from “scarcity thinking”.
“Brigid is the acceptable face of women’s divinity”, Mary Condren told Festival participants on Friday morning. Her research for a long-awaited book on Brigid is a seemingly endless process of pulling up a thread only to find a cluster of many more threads underneath, Mary said. Now exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, Mary is discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times. It seems that at the Festival of Samhain, the maiden, mother and crone return to the Cailleach.
By uncovering old pilgrimage paths and excavating ancient ritual sites in Ireland, researchers are finding many earlier aspects of the sacred feminine that were then ”folded into” the Brigid tradition which in turn was interwoven with the 5th century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren longs for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.
The language of Sacrifice that once meant anoffering is used today as a weapon in the hands of patriarchy, celebrating the deaths in twentieth century wars, then engaging in a lucrative arms trade in the many wars across the planet: legitimizing weapons through honouring the war-dead.
Mercy was the beatitude Brigid chose when she took her veil. Mary Condren believes that the difference between sacrifice and mercy encapsulates the difference between a thealogy (based on feminine values) and patriarchal traditions.
Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. The tradition of collecting dew on the Festival of Imbolc (as we did by leaving our shawls and scarves on the labyrinth tree overnight) is an ancient feminine ritual. Mary’s research into dew in the sacred writings of many traditions (including Kwan Yin where the dew symbolizes compassion and in the Hebrew Bible) shows the longevity of this tradition.
The dew of mercy becomes in Christianity the blood of sacrifice, the redemptive liquid of patriarchy.
Brigid’s life and tradition offers an alternative to sacrifice in the practice of self-fragilization, a willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable, to enter the darkness, to enter the well, and still to remain whole.
Brigid in honoured as a poet, because the task of the poet in ancient Ireland is to call the king to act justly. Mary Condren asks, “Who calls our leaders to justice? to integrity? to compassion?”
At the sacred well, we align ourselves with the call to speak truth to power; we align ourselves with what we are called to do with our lives.
Brigid’s fire is an inner flame that does not burn out. Mary Condren suggests that we cultivate that inner fire of purification and protection rather than the spectacular destructive fire of sacrifice.
Seeking Sophia : Part Six
Everything that is in heaven
on the earth
or under the earth
is penetrated with connectedness….
Hildegard von Bingen, 12th c. abbess/mystic
What Hildegard knew mystically, intuitively, would be proven scientifically nearly a thousand years after her: the interconnectedness of all life.
Another mystic, the poet Francis Thompson, would write in the 19th century:
Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star
Teilhard de Chardin brought the heart of a mystic, the eyes and sensibilities of a poet, the rigorous training of a scientist, to his observations, his intuitions, his deep knowing. Kathleen Duffy, in Teilhard’s Mysticism (Orbis Books, Maryknoll New York, 2014) writes that Teilhard’s vague intuition of universal unity became over time a rational and well-defined awareness of a presence…the presence of a radiant center that has all along been alluring the cosmos into deeper and deeper union…(p. 112)
That presence is the one we have been calling Sophia.
When you and I turn to the sea, a beloved landscape, a mountain, a forest, a tree, to be nourished by beauty, comforted in loss, assured that we are at home on this planet, we are experiencing what poets and mystics experience. Jean Houston would say we are calling on our inner poet, our inner mystic to enter that moment.
The Hildegards, the Teilhards, the great poets and mystics go further. Through writing of the experience, they offer us the key to the garden of delight that is ourbirthright as well as theirs.
Listen to Thomas Merton on a rainy night:
In this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it. (When the Trees Say Nothing: Thomas Merton Writings on Nature edited by Kathleen Deignan, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN 2003)
When we hear the ancient stories, like the English folktale of Mother Moon or the Inuit tale of Bone Woman, we glimpse what Teilhard saw: the presence of that “radiant center…alluring the cosmos into deeper and deeper union”.
The ancient tale of the Seal Woman is found in many cultures, wherever there is a cold sea. A wonderful film version, The Secret of Roan Inish, is set in Ireland. The version I know best comes from the Inuit of Northern Canada and is told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book, Women Who Run with the Wolves(Ballantine Books, New York, 1992)
Perhaps you know the tale: a lonely man sees a group of beautiful women dancing on a rock in the moonlight at the edge of the sea. Beside them he sees a pile of sealskins. He tethers his kayak to the rock, climbs up, stealthily takes and hides one of the sealskins. When the others have donned their skins to leap joyously back into the sea, one woman remains alone, weeping. He comes into view, promising that if she will marry him, he will return her sealskin to her in seven years’ time. She agrees, having no other choice.
They have a boy child. As the years pass, Ooruk sees his mother failing, losing her lustrous colours, her eyesight dimming, her skin drying. She develops a limp. One night he hears her beg his father to return her sealskin. “I must have what belongs to me”, she cries. Though it is now the eighth summer, the man refuses.
Following the call of an old seal, Ooruk rushes out into the night, finds his mother’s sealskin and brings it to her. She puts it on, breathes into his mouth, and takes him with her as she dives into the deep sea, her homeplace. Ooruk meets his grandfather, the old seal who had called to him in the night. He watches his mother become whole, lithe, beautiful once more. Then mother and grandfather return the boy to the topside world, leaving him on a rocky ledge in the moonlight. His mother promises: “I shall breathe into your lungs a wind for the singing of your songs”. Ooruk becomes a drummer, a singer and a storyteller. He is the embodiment of his mother’s spirit, her ensouled gift to the earth.
The Woman needed her sealskin for her return to the homeplace. She knew that if she did not return there, she would die.
It is so with us as well. There is a deep homeplace hidden in the depths of our soul where all that we are is held in love. We need to return there often, but most of all when our sight darkens, when we limp rather than dance. We learn to recognize these signs as calls to home. Then we go. We find our own true centre and allow ourselves to rest in the embrace of love. We know that this is a matter of life or death to our soul.
The child whom the woman returned to the shore was her own spirit, the part of herself she sends to the outer world as drummer, as dancer, as storyteller, as poet, as singer, as healer, as soul friend. But to do this, she must keep her own soul nourished by love in the inner homeplace. It requires of her a balance, a sacred dance, between the topside and underside worlds of her life.
Where is Love in this story? Not in the fisherman who, within a woman’s psyche, always lurks, waiting for a chance to steal her Soulskin, driving her to overwork, demanding that she give until her soul and spirit are raw. But Love is in the Old One, the wise inner aspect of ourselves, who calls us home when it is time; Love is in the Child within us, who knows how to recognize the call of love when our adult self cannot hear. Love is within our Woman's voice when it calls out in anguish, “I must have what belongs to me”.
And yes, Love is in the Sea, the homeplace within, waiting to receive us, body, soul, mind and spirit, into a heart of love.
Seeking Sophia : Part Five
Once you become aware of Sophia in your life, have you noticed that you begin to sense her mysterious presence in bits of poetry, in music, in paintings, in old stories, even in places where once you had pictured a different sacred presence?
When I was beginning my work in spiritual teaching, I discovered that the ancient stories held wisdom and symbols that shed light on our relationship with the Holy. One story that stirred me deeply was the Inuit tale of Bone Woman.
She had somehow displeased her father. In a rage, he hurled her over a cliff into the sea below. There she lay for millennia, resting on the sea bed while the fish ate her flesh, crustaceans covered her ivory teeth, sea creatures filled her eye sockets.
One day a fisherman ventures into the bay, not knowing the locals consider it to be haunted. He baits his line with fish gut, lowers it and pulls up … a woman made of bone!
In terror, he paddles his kayak back to his home area. There he leaps ashore, secures his boat, runs to his snow house, pulling his fishing line with him, unaware that bone woman, completely entangled, is bumping along behind him.
In breathless gratitude, he hurls himself through the low door lights his seal oil lamp. Only then does he see her, slumped across from him, bones askew, still entangled in his fishing line.
His heart suddenly changes, filling with compassion. He moves to where she sits. With immense tenderness, he untangles her from the fishing line, all the while singing a lullaby. At last her bones are in their proper order.
Exhausted, he falls into a deep sleep. When a tear escapes his closed eye, Bone Woman slithers across to him, drinks the tear until it becomes a fountain slaking her deep thirst, reaches into his chest to withdraw his heart. She drums upon it, creating flesh, hair, eyes for her body, all that a woman needs to be whole. She returns his heart to his chest, lies down beside him. They waken at dawn in a holy entanglement, a love that will last all their lives.
There was a time when I thought that any story must and ought and should be understood in the light of the Jesus story, the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection.
In this story, I saw myself in Skeleton Woman, in her sorrow, in her thirst, in her desire for love. I cast in the role of the fisherman the tender, compassionate, untangling Jesus.
For years I worked with the story in this way, inviting people to see how Jesus comes into our lives to untangle us, to give us new life through his heart of flesh.
One evening I was with a group in a Southern Ontario parish. They were reflecting on the story of Bone Woman in small groups, using the guiding questions I’d given them. Though they had been less than enthusiastic earlier, on this third evening, I noticed a different energy: hands gesticulating, heads shaking, nodding, the volume of voices rising, especially in one group.
I was elated. This is good, I thought. Now they are really connecting with the story. I invited their comments, their responses, asking my usual question, Who is God in this story?
Well, the speaker from one group began, I guess God is the fisherman. He went on to say why, prompted by my leading questions.
No, said a woman’s voice. As she stood, I saw with alarm the fire of debate in her eyes. God cannot be the fisherman in this story. God would never run from us in fear.
It was her group that had been engaging in fierce discussion. I saw their heads nodding now in agreement as she spoke.
Then something wonderful happened inside me. I understood!
You are right, I told her. For you have tested the story’s teaching against the truth of your own experience. And your experience tells you that the Holy One would never run from us. So, where is God in this story?
I felt as though I’d just leapt from a plane, my parachute not yet open. I had no idea what the answer might be….
The Holy One is Bone Woman, she said. She enters our life, invites our engagement with her, drinks our tears, takes her very flesh from our beating hearts, finally becomes one with us, body to body, flesh to flesh, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.
That woman, I learned later, was a feminist theologian. It was my first close encounter with a member of the species.
Since that night, I have studied the writings of feminist theologians. On a few rare occasions, I have heard them teach, or give public lectures. I have grown in awe and appreciation of these women who, beginning in the last third of the twentieth century, applied their brilliant, trained intellects, their powerful intelligence, their embodied knowing, to the pursuit of God.
As the woman who spoke that night did, the feminist theologians use their own experience as the fish gut to seek out the Holy, waiting, watching, in the deep waters of their own lives, as well as in the waters of Scripture and Tradition.
They do not merely travel the sea of theology in a kayak. They plumb its depths. With fierce intelligence, with skills honed through years of work, they separate out the crustaceans that have clung to the ivory teeth of truth; they sort through the imbalances, untangling the errors that have accumulated over centuries of masculine-only perceptions, masculine-only embellishments, masculine-only experience.
They have taught me that the feminine aspect of the Holy had been hurled from the cliffs of patriarchy, had been left abandoned at the bottom of the sea. Now, in the fullness of time, She is being fished out by our need of Her, our hunger for Her, for all that She represents.
I learned that Sophia, the personification of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the feminine principle of God. More startlingly, I learned that Jesus may himself be the masculine embodiment of that feminine principle.
When you take the story of Bone Woman into your heart, notice how it resonates with your own experience: where are you in the story now? who is loving you? calling you into fullness of life? who is God for you?
Seeking the Sophia : Part Four
Have you noticed how we are given glimpses of beauty, truth, meaning, and of Sophia ? glimpses whose significance we grasp only much later? Reflecting with you on a Sacred Feminine presence, a memory stirs. It is July, 2005. I am driving towards my first encounter with Jean Houston.
In the deepening dusk, the spruce and fir trees on either side of the narrow road bend towards me. I hope it is in welcome. The car struggles with the climb up into the mountains, as though it is a living thing, exhausted. I have already passed the entrance to Crater Lake National Park, but there was no one there to take the entry fee. There are no other cars on the road, nor have I seen any for the past twenty minutes. None of these signs alert me to the risk I am taking approaching a place as wild as any untamed mountain creature.
Early on that morning when I said goodbye to my friends in Cottonwood, Idaho, I did not know that Crater Lake existed. Three hours later in the small town of Waitsburg, the restaurant owner who served me a late breakfast sent my plans cartwheeling.
“Where are you headed?” The question was friendly, interested, an offer of conversation to his only customer.
I told him I needed to reach Ashland Oregon by the following day. “For a ten-day course in Social Artistry,” I added.
But it was not the journey’s purpose that interested him. “You taking 97 South?”
“No,” I said, showing him my multi-paged Map Quest Route. ‘”Straight south down the Interstate 5.”
But he wouldn’t hear of it. “Take 97 South. You have to see Crater Lake.” And he disappeared into the living space behind the restaurant, returning like a squirrel with a stored treasure, a brochure that offered routes, photos, and the amazing history of this crater, formed when a mountain blew its top in a volcanic eruption thousands of years earlier.
Map Quest had been my security blanket on a journey I’d never made before; yet the kindness of this stranger, his eagerness for me not to miss something of incomparable beauty, won me over.
Now, after a full day’s journey, most of it through the desert of Oregon in temperatures that topped one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, I have arrived. The trees to my left suddenly part to reveal a shimmering surface where Crater Lake bends and curves within the arms of its great rock bowl, glowing platinum in the last light of day.
I pull over to park beside the low stone wall and stand gazing out at a stillness that calms and fills me. Already on its distant edges I can see wisps of mist rising as the cooling air caresses the water’s surface. I stand here for a long while, knowing I am seeing something that Native American Shamans forbade their people to look upon, a lake discovered by white men only in the 1850's. For more than seven thousand years, rain and snow have been quietly filling the bowl of a collapsed mountain to create one of the purest and deepest lakes on the planet.
I climb back into the car, the darkness deepening as I drive further into the mountains. I look to the left, to the east, to the place of new beginnings, where the lake still glows, a grey white opal in the evening. Just beyond the edge of the narrow road, to my right, in the west, the place of endings, the sun is setting, a giant orange-red thumb print. Below it, I gaze at the tops of purple mountains.
I am glimpsing a metaphor for the spirituality I have been seeking for a long while, though I do not yet know this.
Twenty-four hours later, I walk into a room at Ashland University to find some ninety persons gathered, most as well-aged as myself, many dressed like me in long skirts and flowing tunic tops. Like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, I know I am at home.
As the days move on, I discover I am living with these people a spirituality that we share, though we have come from religious traditions as divergent as Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Native American.
In the Closing Ritual, Jean invites each of us to say what we feel called to do with our lives after this experience. I say to the group gathered around our ersatz altar, covered with the UN flag of the planet earth, and vases of flowers, “I want to weave into the new spirituality all the passion and love and beauty that was Christianity.”
One other shadowy memory remains from that last morning of the Conference. We are dancing, all ninety of us, in great concentric circles when suddenly, with a deep knowing, I sense the presence of the One I have known as Jesus.
Remembering Thomas Berry's words, that if Jesus is who he says he is he will show up, I half-turn to where I have sensed the presence. I am looking directly at a woman, a Mexican-American, who is part of our group.
In some dim awareness within me, the knowing registers, faint as starlight on photographic film: Jesus has shown up today as a woman.
Later I would connect this moment with Julian’s perplexing words, finally understanding them:
And Jesus is our true Mother
in whom we are endlessly carried
and out of whom
we will never come.
Crater Lake has become for me a metaphor of how the Holy One has been quietly filling a new, wonderfully feminine container with the waters of a new spirituality for our planet. It has been gathering over thousands of years, while just as quietly, and with equal slowness, the mountains of patriarchal religions are sinking into their purple depths under the ember eye of the setting sun.
It’s not something we are waiting for; it’s already present among us, inviting us to rejoice in a faithful One who knows the longings of our hearts.
Seeking the Sophia: Part Three
Long long before I imagined the Holy bearing a woman’s face, I caught glimpses of a sacred loving presence for whom I had no name, about whom I knew nothing.
I first learned of her indirectly, in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ retelling of an English folktale. In “Stolen Mother Moon”, the Moon, who passionately loves her people, learns that some of them are being destroyed by the evil creatures who dwell in a muddy moat surrounding their small English village. She determines to come to earth to find out what is happening.
One night, her brilliance wrapped in a dark cloak, she sets out to cross the swamp. The evil creatures trap her, beat her to death, bury her deep in the mud, rolling a great stone over the place where she lies.
After much seeking, the villagers find the stone, guided by a tiny light seeping around it. They manage to roll the stone away. A radiant woman looks upon them with great love. They watch in wonder as she rises to take her place in the night sky.
I came upon this story at a time in my life when I felt very much alone, without guidance. I longed for someone to mother my adult years with love, to show me the way through the uncertain pathways that were opening before me. The Moon became a symbol for me of the love and the guidance for which I longed.
Slowly, as I worked with the story, guided by Estes’ Jungian teachings, I learned to look for Mother Moon within me, to begin to grow an inner mother. This I found I could do by being a kind mother to myself.
How radical that advice seemed to me, schooled as I was in ignoring my needs and desires, in distrusting the lure of what I longed for, in believing discomfort and suffering must be born heroically. Schooled as I was, in fact, in the masculine way of endurance, of striving after perfection. To be invited, even advised, to grow an inner mother, to be taught that the way was through kindness and caring towards oneself, seemed revolutionary to me.
But so great was my need, so clear and compelling were the words of this master storyteller, that I began in earnest to practise self-care, kindness. Slowly, slowly, slowly over time a compassionate inner voice began to replace my harsh inner critic. Slowly, over time, I began to feel loved. I began to experience the wise guidance of an inner mother.
But not always.
And this is the deep wisdom of the story. Though we may invite a sacred mother, a holy feminine presence, to make her home within us, there will be times when she will seem to be absent, when we are left in the dark, feeling alone. We muddle through at such times as best we can. We remember how we are without her presence. And we do not risk dangerous journeys into the muddy depths of our own souls without her.
As Mary Malone’s poem reminds us:
She the Lover comes,
She the Lover goes,
Don’t seek stability in this love
but know that only in this love
will you meet the Woman-being of God.
Teilhard knew this sacred feminine presence, saw her at the heart of the Universe, and yet he also experienced her elusive quality.
In Teilhard’s Mysticism, Kathleen Duffy writes:
The tenderness of her compassion and her holy charm aroused Teilhard’s passion for the Divine and sensitized his heart. He was enthralled with “the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth, ” as it flows into the heart of the cosmos, toward its very center. He yearned to take hold of her, yet whenever he tried, he found that she eluded his grasp. With great alacrity, he followed her lead as she guided him through the “luminous mist hanging over the abyss” and propelled him toward the heights into freedom.
(p.111 Orbis Books, Maryknoll New York, 2014)
The story of the buried moon is one of the great life/death/life stories. Mother Moon, drawn to her people’s suffering, walks into the dark bog where they are being attacked and devoured. Over the years since I first heard this story, it has become clear to me that the Moon must have known the danger she faced in coming to earth, must have taken the risk willingly, out of love. She was beaten, murdered, buried. A great stone was rolled across her grave.And then she rose, radiant, loving.
There is still more for us to consider. How did the villagers know where to begin to seek out the Moon? As you yourself must have observed, when the Holy One who loves you is nowhere to be found, when you cannot possibly climb upwards to the sacred sky to seek her, you must instead look deep within yourself. Look into the dark, unpleasant, noisome, hidden recesses of your soul, the very place you are most reluctant to look. For that is where she will be waiting.
Her light within us is a great gift. A treasure.
I am beginning to understand that this is a story of the way the feminine aspect of God has been buried deep over the millennia, hidden, with a great stone of masculine power firmly placed on top to prevent her rising.
But the stone has at last been rolled away. The Moon is rising in the hearts, souls, spirits, the embodied lives of the women and men who long for her return.
Stretch your imagination way, way back to the dawn of humankind, to the time when God was imaged as woman, for woman was the one who bled without dying, who gave birth to new life. Through millennia of buffeting, relentless harrying, the holy feminine presence was blown away by the winds of time, until, exhausted, she was swallowed by the earth, buried in deep darkness where she has waited. Until the time is right. Until the Kairos moment.
A thousand years pass, a thousand thousand. The time of rebirth dawns.
That is where we are now in the story. It is our task to rebirth her in our lives, in our being, to embody her. We are called to assist this feminine presence of the Holy to come to life within us, where she may reveal herself once more.
Seeking the Sophia: Part Two
I long for You so much
I follow barefoot Your frozen tracks
That are high in the mountains
That I know are years old.
I long for You so much
I have even begun to travel
Where I have never been before.
(in Hafiz The Subject Tonight Is Love
trans. Daniel Ladinsky)
As we set out to find Sophia, the missing feminine aspect of the Holy, we prepare for a long journey, following tracks that are millennia old. We learn to be adept at time travel, at exploring deep dusty caverns of pre-history, at unravelling, then reweaving, threads of ancient stories.
Sophia is nowhere precisely, yet everywhere subtly. Mythologies of many cultures abound with tales of her presence, her power, her sufferings, her diminishments. Old fairy tales hold glimpses of her that are both tender and terrifying. We will need to look into sacred wells, old ritual sites, ruined temples and sanctuaries. We will carefully examine fragments of poetry, shards of pottery, pieces of drums, tiny perfect feminine figures carved of stone, buried in the depths of the earth.
We are living today in the time of the great recovery. What has been hidden is being revealed to us. Scholars of ancient civilizations are writing of their findings: the traces of a sacred feminine presence within the stories, myths and ritual practices of people long vanished.
In A Brief History of The Celts, Peter Berresford Ellis writes of the Great Mother Goddess of the Ancient Celts, revealing the connection between the Celtic Goddess and the great rivers of Ireland, a sacred connection also found in India’s mythology:
… the Celts believed their origins lay with the mother goddess Danu, ‘divine waters from heaven’. She fell from heaven and her waters created the Danuvius (Danube), having watered the sacred oak tree Bile.
From there sprang the pantheon of the gods who are known as the Tuatha de Danaan (Children of Danu) in Irish and the Children of Don in Welsh myths. (p. 162)
The story associated with the Danuvius, which is arguably the first great Celtic sacred river, has similarities with myths about the Boyne, from the goddess Boann, and the Shannon, from the goddess Sionan in Ireland.
More important, it bears a close resemblance to the Hindu goddess Ganga, deity of the Ganges. Both Celts and Hindus worshipped in the sacred rivers and made votive offerings there. In the Vedic myth of Danu, for she exists as a deity in Hindu Mythology as well, the goddess appears in the famous Deluge story called “The Churning of the Ocean.” (p.7)
Celtic writer Jen Delyth writes further of the goddess Anu, also known as Danu and Aine:
An ancient figure, venerated under many names, she is known as the womb of life. She is the spark and vitality of life. She is the seed of the sun in our veins. The Great Earth Mother is more ancient than the god of the Celtic Druids.
She is the Mother whose breasts are the Paps of Anu in Ireland. Her hair is the wild waves, the golden corn. Her eyes are the shining stars, her belly the round tors or earth barrows from which we are born. Like the cat, the sow, the owl, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. She is the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons.
In rivers, waves, and corn, in stars and earth barrows, in the very seasons of our land, this sacred presence is embodied.
She is immersed, implanted in the universe, around above, beneath, within us.
In Women of the Celts Jean Markale offers an overview of the decline of the Sacred Feminine presence as the Jewish/Christian religions became dominant, but he also hints at how her presence survives:
Within the patriarchal framework (goddesses) were often obscured, tarnished and deformed, and submerged into the depth of the unconscious. But they do still exist, if only in dormant state, and sometimes rise triumphantly to rock the supposedly immovable foundations of masculine society.
The triumph of Yahweh and Christ was believed sanctified forever, but from behind them reappears the disturbing and desirable figure of the Virgin Mary with her unexpected names:
Our Lady of the Water, Our Lady of the Nettles, Our Lady of the Briars, Our Lady of the Mounds, Our Lady of the Pines.
But in spite of the veneration accorded her over the centuries and the public declaration of successive dogmas related to Mary, the authorities of the Christian Church have always made her a secondary character, overshadowed and retiring, a model of what women ought to be.
Now the pure and virginal servant of man, the wonderful mother who suffers all heroically, she is no longer the Great Goddess before whom the common herd of men would tremble, but Our Lady of the Night. (p. 86)
Our Lady of the Night! What a lovely, appropriate name for the presence we seek, the One who has so many different names… yet is being rebirthed now in our time, from the “womb of this present darkness”.
The ways we are to seek her may seem arduous, but the starting place is deep within our souls. As Hafiz hints in his poem, the search begins with our longing for her.
In Search of Sophia, the Woman Face of God
Our time with the Beguines, the medieval holy women of Europe, leads us now into a further exploration of Love at the heart of the universe in its feminine form. This search will ask for our trust as we discover new images, new symbols, surprising new names for the Holy. Over the coming weeks, the seeking will be in poetry, in nuance, in imagination, in story, myth and dream rather than in logic and reason.
For we are entering Mystery and we will need the feminine gifts of our psyche for the journey. We begin with a poem inspired by the writings of the Beguine Hadewijch of Brabant. Mary Malone introduces us to the “Woman God of Love”:
Woman God of my Heart,
It is You I know,
You who beckon me into the nameless nights.
By day I scrabble for love
As the little birds of winter scrabble for grain.
But in the night of unfaith,
the long, nameless night,
it is You,
Woman God of love,
it is You,
Woman love of God
that dares me
to open my soul to Your womanly caress,
to expand, blossom, breathe
in the darkness.
Woman God of my Life,
You summon me to newness.
Don’t let newness escape.
She the Lover comes,
She the Lover goes.
Don’t seek stability in this love
but know that only in this love
Will you meet the Woman-being of God
And stroke the Woman-face of God.
Reason has taught me to seek God
where God is not,
in the given names and images and symbols,
in creeds and dogmas and commands.
But Love, the dark being of new love,
teaches me to touch the love being of God Herself.
Woman God of Truth,
Lead me into the newness of unfaith.
Breathe with me through this lightsome darkness.
Lead me through the nameless nights.
Open my spirit to
What joy to be human
and know ever and ever again
the nameless God,
She of the nameless nights.
(Mary T. Malone in Praying with the Women Mystics Columba Press, Dublin Ireland, 2006)
On this journey into Mystery, we will walk some familiar roads. Teilhard de Chardin, brilliant 20th century scientist and mystic, in his book Writings in Time of War (translated by Rene Hague, London: Collins, and New York: Harper & Row, 1968), writes of a feminine presence drawn from the wisdom literature of the Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, (8: 22-31).
April 13 of this year marked the sixtieth anniversary of Teilhard’s death on Easter Sunday, 1955. To honour him on this anniversary, we shall let his words lead us into our exploration of the Woman Face of God.
In her essay “Sophia: Catalyst for Creative Union and Divine Love” Kathleen Duffy reweaves Teilhard’s writings on the sacred feminine, working through its shining threads new insights from science, wisdom literature and the work of many “who have contemplated the divine creativity at work at the heart of matter”.
Duffy names the feminine presence in Teilhard’s poem “Sophia”, from the Greek word for Wisdom, and says that Teilhard experienced this presence “with nature, with other persons, and with the Divine”:
He began gradually to recognize her everywhere --- in the rocks that he chiselled, in the seascapes and landscapes that he contemplated, and in the faces of the dying soldiers to whom he ministered during the war….Teilhard came to know Sophia as the cosmic Love that is holding all things together. (p. 33)
Teilhard’s poem opens at the beginning of time, at the moment when Sophia is embedded into the primordial energy that is already expanding into the space-time of the early universe. Only half formed and still elusive, she emerges as from the mist, destined to grow in beauty and grace (WTW, 192). As soon as the first traces of her presence become apparent, she assumes her mandate to nurture creation, to challenge it, to unify it, to beautify it, and ultimately to lead the universe back to God. With this mission as her guide, she attends to her work of transforming the world, a world alive with potential. (Duffy p. 27)
“Who then is Sophia?” Duffy asks. Here is her magnificent response to this question:
She is the presence of God poured out in self-giving love, closer to us than we are to ourselves, ever arousing the soul to passion for the Divine. From the very depths of matter, she reveals herself to us as the … very nature of God residing within the core of the cosmic landscape.
Attempting always to capture our attention, Sophia peers out at us from behind the stars, overwhelms us with the radiance of a glorious sunset, and caresses us with a gentle breeze….Shining through the eyes of the ones we love, she sets our world ablaze.
Sophia is the mercy of God in us….She sits at the crossroads of our lives, ever imploring us to work for peace, to engage in fruitful dialogue, and to find new ways of connecting with the other. She longs to open our eyes to the presence of pain and suffering in the world, to transform our hearts and to move us to action. (pp. 31-32)
Teilhard came to understand that Sophia can be known “only in embodied human actions”.
Duffy concludes her illuminative essay with these words:
Sophia was the source of Teilhard’s life…. Her constant care for creation during so many billions of years gave him confidence she would continue to be faithful… Teilhard vowed to steep himself in the sea of matter, to bathe in its fiery water, to plunge into Earth where it is deepest and most violent, to struggle in its currents, and to drink of its waters. Filled with impassioned love for Sophia, he dedicated himself body and soul to the ongoing work needed to transform the cosmos to a new level of consciousness and to transformative love. (p. 34)
(Kathleen Duffy's essay appears in From Teilhard to Omega edited by Ilia Delio Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2014)
Brigid, Jean Houston and Alignment February 1st
February 1st, Brigid’s day, is the Festival of Imbolc in the ancient Celtic calendar, a day to look towards the coming of spring. We are now halfway through the dark time of the year, the feminine days within the transformative cauldron of the hag, the wise woman, the cailleach, who is the third face of the sacred feminine. This is the time when, as Dolores Whelan says, winter is pregnant with summer.
When she spoke with the women who gathered for her Brigid Retreat at Galilee Centre near Ottawa, Canada, last February, Dolores Whelan encouraged us to live out in our own lives the qualities of Brigid, especially those to which we feel most drawn. For me, one of the most important aspects of Brigid’s life, and the secret of her power, is her alignment, her capacity to bring together within her being the powers of heaven and earth: Brigid dwelt in harmony with both, never allowing her focus to stray from the presence of the Sacred even while deeply engaged with the daily tasks of her life.
In an interview given recently to OM Times Magazine, Jean Houston also speaks of the importance of alignment. If we align our lives, our energies, with the energies of the universe our works will have their needed power and effect.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
OM Times: Can you talk a little about how the Universe works?
Jean: The Universe is energy—the same energy that is the source of our being and everything there is. The difference between ourselves and everything else is that the Universe is alive and conscious in us. And because of this, we can engage in what the Buddhists have called “interdependent co-arising,” meaning that you and the Universe enter into a kind of conscious partnership in which you co-create your experience of reality rather than falling into place of apathy and denial.
Rather than thinking of the Universe as a vast, complex and intimidating unknown, the Universe can really be perceived more like a friend you’ve grown up with for your entire life, and who will be always right there beside you, helping you and enjoying the fruits of every challenge and discovery you experience in every day of your life.
In fact, the greatest scientific discovery of all time is indeed the realization modern Quantum Physics first uncovered in the early 20th century but which was long known in Eastern philosophies and native cultures—the fact that everything in the Universe is only this singular energy in a constant state of change.
And the further discovery that consciousness itself is the underlying organizing principle of the entire Universe is not unlike the 800-pound gorilla in the room that can no longer be ignored… Because with this understanding of how the Universe works, Quantum Physics is introducing us to ways of seeing the world and our place in it that are just beginning to profoundly impact human thinking, feeling, sensing, knowing and being.
OM Times: That seems like a revolution in perception that is only just beginning to take hold in our culture.
Would you agree?
Jean: Yes, and the deeper knowledge of this, the kind taken not only into our minds, but into our hearts, our spirits and our souls, can radically change us and move us into a new evolutionary development for humankind.
And this new level of development brings us into our own inherent abilities for experiencing what I’m calling the “Quantum Self” and the “Quantum Mind,” which are part of my Quantum Powers Training.
I’ve closely studied ancient Hindu and Buddhist cultures with a variety of practices that can bring us into greater resonance with this deeper reality, and they are remarkably similar to those findings on the frontiers of Quantum Physics.
I have discovered—in both ancient texts and shamanic practices—that consciousness is central to the very nature of reality in those cultures.
In fact, my study of Eastern, Western, and indigenous philosophies and world-views is beginning to provide clear keys and practices that can not only deliver us from our chronic woes, but also bring us to our higher purpose as a member of the Universe in evolution.
And all of this gives us the basis for a whole new story that is at once very ancient and ever new.
OM Times: What is that new story?
Jean: To put it in terms of the new physics, it is the reality that the observer affects the things observed. And this is the foundation of our Quantum Powers and the art and science of manifestation: as viewed, so appears.
OM Times: That’s a truly exciting idea.
Jean: Indeed it is, and it gives us a perspective on the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness that could well affect much of our human agenda in science, theology, philosophy, mythology, psychology and relationship—the entire spectrum of our human condition from here forward.
We're being urged by the Earth and the Universe toward a new stage of growth, and we are waking up to the realization that we can become partners in creation, stewards of the Earth's well-being, and conscious participants in the cosmic epic of evolution.
As ancient peoples have been telling us all along, this story is bigger than all of us, and it desires our engagement, our love and our commitment.
OM Times: That’s incredibly inspiring, Jean.
The Theory of Everything
On the coldest Saturday in January, most of Ottawa’s population, to judge by the overstuffed parking lot, has come to the movies. From sixteen choices, mostly Oscar contenders, I choose the Stephen Hawking story, “The Theory of Everything”. The film tells of the human journey, the courage, the seeking, the loves and losses of this brilliant man, with only glimpses of the complex mathematics and scientific breakthroughs for which he has become famous. Stephen's eyes shine with eagerness as he speaks of his lifelong quest to find that one beautiful, perfect equation that would explain all of life, “the theory of everything”.
In one compelling scene, Stephen gazes at the burning logs in the fireplace, viewing them through the knitted mesh of his sweater in which he is helplessly entangled. Staring into the black centre of the flames, he suddenly grasps what had until then eluded him: how black holes release energy in their dying .
After the film, driving home through the frigid night, I think about our Communion of Creative Fire. Colette once said that just as supernova, upon exploding, release the elements of new life, so too our communion is being created from the elements released by the dying star of the old forms of religious community.
Then another release fills my memory, my heart. My younger, beloved sister Patricia has just died, her breath releasing her life as I sat beside her.
For ten days before her death, my other four siblings and I, along with Patti’s two adult children, made daily journeys to the Palliative Care wing of the hospital, some of us spending the nights in her room, so that she would never be alone. Throughout the journey, as she had done through the months of cancer treatment before she came to the hospital, Patti, ever the philosopher, was seeking the meaning of life. It was her own quest for the Theory of Everything.
With many of her visitors, the conversation would open with the question, “What will happen to me when I die? Where will I go?” One of her visitors answered her, “Why you’ll go to purgatory of course. That’s why we pray for the souls in purgatory.”
His response terrified Patti. When I heard what he had said to her, I felt the exploding of the star of the “old time religion”. My eyesight sharpened, seeking the fragments of the new spirituality that shone through the darkness of the days of Patti’s dying.
Patti asked for books about death, and a family friend brought her “Befriending Death”, reflections based on Henri Nouwen’s writings. Glancing through it one day as I sat by Patti’s bed, I came upon a passage where a dying woman was assured that she was held in love while she lived and would be held in love after she died. Yes, that’s it! I thought.
When Patti asked me about death, I had only one certainty to offer her. The twelfth century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, wrote of a conversation with her Beloved Jesus in which she asked him to tell her what death would be like. He answered, “You will take a breath and I will be there.” Patti received that, held onto it, trusted it.
In the last month of her life, when it became achingly clear that hopes for her recovery would not be fulfilled, Patti’s daughter Kate and son-in-law Jason prepared a beautiful living space for her in their home. There she had the daily joy of being with her grandsons: two-year- old Jack and five-month- old Nathaniel.
Father Michael agreed to arrange for Nathaniel’s Baptism at home so Patti could take part in it. Patti’s son Matthew and his wife Jennifer would be Godparents. Family and friends were invited, caterers prepared food, all was in readiness.
But on the morning of the Baptism, Patti was rushed to the hospital. Plans for the celebration were cancelled. A few long hours later, Patti was allowed to return home, and asked Father Michael if he would go ahead with the Baptism. He agreed, and quickly gathered what was needed. A large bowl had to be transformed into a baptismal font. Parents, Godparents, and little Jack gathered around Patti’s bed as Father Michael led the service of welcoming Nate into the family of Christ.
Afterwards, Patti said to Father Michael, “I have finally figured out the meaning of life”. But at that very moment, Harvey, the family’s golden lab, came bounding into the room and began to lap luxuriantly from the baptismal bowl. Michael smiled as he later told the story: “So I never got to hear Patti’s revelation about the meaning of life.”
On the Feast of the Epiphany, a ray of sunlight made its way from the hospital window and for a moment lay across Patti’s bed, touching her face. Her eyes were closed, and when I told her of the light, she said, “It’s about time!”
Yes. There comes a time as you sit by the deathbed of someone you love when you long to say, “Enough!” The person’s suffering becomes too much to bear. All you desire is their release. That moment arrived towards the end of the days of our vigil when Kate and I were alone with Patti, who no longer seemed aware of our presence. Kate looked at me with a half-smile, and said ruefully, “Can’t you use your holy powers?”
“I don’t have any power, Kate. I only have love.”
And that I knew to be true. My love for Patti grew so strong that I could promise her, when she wakened briefly on the last night, that I would not leave her. My love for Matthew deepened as he spent night after night beside his mother’s bed, sleeping on the floor until a recliner chair was brought to him. My love for Kate, whose strength never wavered, who covered the bare walls of her mother’s room with beautiful photos of their lives together, grew and grew.
On the last morning, Matthew left after two nights and a day without sleep. Kate and I were alone with Patti who had not wakened in several hours. She seemed to be in deep conversation with someone. Her lips were forming words, but mostly there was no sound. Then we heard her say, “But I don’t understand!” After a while, the conversation calmed, then ceased. The questing was over. Her breathing became slower. Kate and I sat on either side, each holding one of her hands. Patti took a breath, and Love was there.
Afterwards, I walked outdoors into the brilliant sunlit day. For a moment I stood still, unable to receive so much light, wondering where it all came from, suddenly wondering if Patti was wondering the same thing.
“What does God do all day long? God lies on a maternity bed, giving birth all day long.” Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, wrote these words in the thirteenth century. Seven hundred years later Teilhard de Chardin wrote of God as an evolutionary presence, new each day!
Both Meister Eckhart and Teilhard would agree that such a God calls us to become co-birthers, partners with the Sacred Presence of Love, as we bring about newness for our beloved, wounded earth and all its varied, beautiful, tender, fractured beings.
Today is the Winter Solstice, the time when the earth in our hemisphere seems to pause, lean in, tilt towards the sun, creating days that are a tiny bit longer, nights just a shave shorter. This annual event, noticed millennia ago by our ancient ancestors, is a blessing of hope from our planet, a pledge that no darkness can last forever.
The early Christians, inspired by the Celtic Druids, chose this time of year to celebrate the birth of the One who came to bring light that the darkness would never overcome.
Last night I sat in my home with no light but the orange-red glow coming from the wood stove. My darkness was, as in the words of Robert Frost, “not of woods only and the shade of trees”. Longest Night for me was filled with fear of an impending loss of someone I love who is ill, not expected to recover. Months of hopes, prayers, beseeching have not made that reality any different. My darkness held grief at not being heard, awareness that loss is inevitable, as I remembered those deaths that preceded, those that must follow.
I opened a book of the poetry of Tagore, turned to a poem that had found me a few days earlier:
If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it.
I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil
and its head bent low with patience.
The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and thy voice pour down in golden streams
breaking through the sky.
Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds’ nests,
and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.
As I sat in the darkness, I listened to Carolyn McDade’s Solstice Song: Born of a Star
Return, return to the darkness return,
this longest night of wonder
Return, return to the dream, return,
This holy night to ponder
Deep in the night, listen,
Turn to the light, waken, waken
Deep in the night, turn to the light
Waken to sun’s ancient summons
We who are born of a star, who then are We?
We who are loved by a star, who then love We?
Deep in the night, listen, listen
Turn to the light, waken, waken
Deep in the night, turn to the light
Waken to sun’s ancient summons
We who are born of a star, who then are We?
It was my first Solstice alone in many years, so I chose music as it drew me, danced as the music invited me….
At some moment, (who can tell when or how these moments arise?) I knew what I needed to do, what I had not until last night been able to do: I surrendered to Love. Then I did the second thing I had not been able to do. I cried. And I kept dancing.
Something in me shifted. The planet that is myself tilted back towards Love, knew that Love still held me, will hold those I love through death and beyond. I do not know how it will be, but I know it now. Fiercely.
I went to sleep in the darkness of Longest Night, noticing that an emptiness within me no longer gnawed.
I wakened before dawn, dressed warmly, went outdoors to stand near the river’s edge, looking east to where I could see only a lighter grey. Slowly the grey became a silver white, a hint of brightness, then a smudge of pale rose, expanding to a wide swath of deeper rose-red, and within its centre a red-orange flame.
Words of Carolyn McDade come to mind:
You are the love within all things, a widening embrace.
A flame that weeps and launches joy
to leap through realms of grace.
Her song continues with a call that Meister Eckhart and Teilhard would echo:
Are we not born to love this life,
to make the wounded whole,
to plunge the chasms of despair
and lift the singing bird.
O Ardent One, Be with us now
Go with us as we dare,
to make of love a greater love and pass the living flame.
(Carolyn McDade: “Within All Things”)
Touch a Flower, Stir a star….
September 7, 2014
“You always were the better looking one,” the man says, his laughter choked with emotion. CBC Radio is interviewing two men who grew up in Ottawa, just a few blocks from one another. They attended the same school, were drawn together as friends. Now decades later, living far apart in Saskatchewan and California, they discover they are brothers, adopted by families who happened to be near neighbours. Their joy sings across the radio waves.
Imagine you had grown up believing yourself alone in a universe, on a planet, all that exists separate from you, overseen by a far-off, perhaps well-disposed, occasionally interested, mostly aloof, ultimate being.
Now imagine discovering that all the people you see around you, those you know, those who live in far-off, exotic, war-ravaged countries, as well as every beautiful, terrifying, living thing: flower, lake, star, tree, deer, bear, dog, even the wolves who howl at the moon, even the moon herself, are part of you and you of them, connected in an unseen web of life. Imagine knowing that the presence we call God is NOT somewhere up in the sky, but is at the heart of all of life, continually coming to birth from within all that is, from within you.
That is the reality of our lives today. That is the revolution that in our lifetime has stood much of science, theology, human understanding of the universe and our place within it, on its head. Our Communion of Creative Fire has come to birth within this new knowing. Our sacred shared task is to discover and embrace how this knowing alters the way we live, the way we love, the way we know the Presence of Love at the heart of life.
We are not without guides in this newness. Centuries ago, mystics of many faith paths intuited these knowings, and that is why we have spent the past year with women like Hildegard, Brigid and Julian.
Poets, ancient and new, listened deeply to reality, fell in love with the beauty they encountered, intuited these truths.
Physicists, who stand in awe at what they are discovering each day about the universe, are being called the mystics of our time.
The spiritual/religious traditions of earth- based cultures: the ancient Egyptians, the Celts, the Aboriginals of Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, are now honoured, their practices and rituals being rediscovered.
Today’s scholars, poets, writers and eco-theologians are weaving these ancient knowings with the new science creating cloths of multi-hued beauty. In the twentieth century, Teilhard de Chardin, and following his lead, Thomas Berry, began this weaving in wonder.
And we in the Communion of Creative Fire are listening deeply to the heartbeat of the earth, the cry of all who live here, the music of the spheres, the songs of the stars. We are listening deeply to our own heart’s longings arising from within, from the God who dwells in the heart of our being, needing our lives to know Godself.
Deep listening is our first commitment. In her book The Unbearable Wholeness of Being (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2013) the Franciscan Ilia Delio writes:
Love lives in the depths of evolving life, but to know this love, we must withdraw from the busy world, enter quietly within ourselves, cherish solitude, and return to nature as our kin. Conscious love requires the space of simplicity where love can dwell by letting go of what we try to possess. It needs the peace of solitude, coming home to ourselves where we find the love that creates and sustains us in our innermost being. We must surrender within where God is seeking to be born.
Our second call is to share with one another what we are hearing, so that together we create an unfolding of the call of love. What you hear, what I hear, belong together in a larger story, each part of it important for our life together. One way we can share what we hear is through our website in our Gathering Space and in longer Reflections we may be called to write. There is also the great power of gathering for shared listening, as practised by contemplative communities from many faith paths. This we shall do as a Communion one year from now when we gather in Guelph Ontario, September 18-20, 2015.
A smaller group will meet two or three times before that gathering to work together at our tasks of deep listening and sharing, seeking to know better our call as Communion of Creative Fire. A beautiful image for this task was suggested by the visionary founder of our Communion of Creative Fire: Jean Houston. The Emperor Penguins of Antarctica huddle for warmth in a close inner circle, protected from the fierce winds and blasting cold by an outer circle. When those on the outer circle are too cold, they move in, allowing the warmed penguins to take their place. This fluid image will be ours as the fire-tenders gather in November and two or three times each year to do the deep work for a time, then move to the outer circle, while some from the outer circle move in to take their place.
Our third commitment is to carry the fire of our deep listening, our shared understanding, out into the universe wherever we are, working from the passion within to bring love and healing to the earth, to all that lives upon and within it. Our new vision of life gives fire to our work. Seeing ourselves as intimately part of the whole, we act on its behalf: I no longer see myself as ‘protecting the rainforest’ but rather that ‘I am part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest emerged into thinking’. (John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess, Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (Philadelphia: New Catalyst Books, 2007)
“My work is loving the world,” writes poet Mary Oliver, “which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” In her book of poems Red Bird (Beacon Press, Boston, 2008) Mary Oliver offers us this invitation:
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbour of your longing.
and put your lips to the world.
There was a time when the coming of snow awakened regret within me, a sense of loss as summer’s gifts of freedom, of warmth, of ease of travel are ended. Now the regret is muted, mixed with a quiet readiness, an anticipation. I light the fires of late autumn and welcome the Feast of Samhain (Saw-wane). I welcome the womb time. The energies of life, death and rebirth that are at the heart of the Celtic tradition are celebrated on Samhain, the feast that ushers in the dark contemplative season of the year.
Its arrival was soundless. No heraldic wind announced its coming. No ominous creaking of tree branches. No frightened cries of birds, waterfowl. Wisely, the geese had already flown. But it fell throughout last night, here in the Ottawa Valley. The dawn light revealed its presence across earth, grass, tired garden and trees. The first fall of snow.
There was a time when the coming of snow awakened regret within me, a sense of loss as summer’s gifts of freedom, of warmth, of ease of travel ended. Now the regret is muted, mixed with a quiet readiness, an anticipation. I light the fires of late autumn and welcome the Feast of Samhain (Saw-wane). I welcome the womb time.
The energies of life, death and rebirth that are at the heart of the Celtic tradition are celebrated on Samhain, the feast that ushers in the dark contemplative season of the year. For our Celtic ancestors, the three days that we now call Hallowe’en, All Saints’ and All Souls’ were one feast, marking the year’s end with a three-day festival that was like a time-out between the old and new year.
The year turned from the bright masculine season with its intense activity of planting, growing, harvesting, and welcomed the quieter days of winter, “the time of darkness, the realm of the goddess where the feminine energy principle is experienced and the season of non-doing is initiated.” (Dolores Whelan: Ever Ancient, Ever New pp. 98-9)
The early Christian Missionaries to Ireland had the wisdom to incorporate many of the Druidic feasts and rituals into the new religion. Celtic Christianity was closely bound up with the earth, the seasons, the daily swing from darkness to light to darkness, the balance and power of both masculine and feminine energies.
Samhain is the most significant festival in the Celtic year, “a time when the veil between the worlds is thin and the gates that normally divide those worlds are open” (Whelan p. 92).This makes it easier to connect with the other worlds and the other dimensions of reality and the beings that reside there. As on the Christian Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, our hearts are drawn towards those who have died: those we have known and those whose lives were long before our time. We remember their gifts with gratitude, their woundings with compassion, with prayer for wholeness.
The principal themes of the time of Samhain have been absorbed into our celebration of the three feasts of October 31st, November 1st and 2nd. We still see this time as one in which the gates between the worlds are open, when we remember those who have died and experience a dissolution of normal societal behaviors. This last theme has been muted to a Halloween costume party, but for our ancestors, it was a time to step outside the structured places and roles of Celtic society, to dress up in strange clothes and play tricks on neighbours and superiors. This absence of order restored balance; chaos was invited in to shake things up as the old year is released and the new is welcomed.
The dark time of the year was meant to be a time of renewal when earth and humans rested so that energy was gathered inwards to support what was happening deep within the earth and deep within the human psyche; the energy gathered in this season would be used when the winter had passed and spring brought new life to the land and the people.
Samhain invites us to release whatever is not completed at this time; the light must be released, along with the samos energy of activity and doing. “What is required in this season is for humans to surrender into the giamos mode of being, into darkness, active waiting, and non-doing that characterizes this time.” (Whelan p. 100)
The next marker on the Celtic calendar will be the Winter Solstice. As we move towards the rebirth of the sun, we embrace a journey of deep surrender. “The days shorten, the nights get longer, the earth draws its energy deep within, death and darkness are all around us.... we reside in the womb or cauldron of the Goddess where gestation and transformation happen. We are deep within the giamos period, where the experience of linear time is minimized, willpower is muted and contemplation of the ever-present form or ground of being is encouraged. Here the mode of being that is required is rest, passive attentiveness to the unconscious influences of the other world, together with openness to growth that is slow and unforced. This is the dream time where the seeds of new life, new ideas, new projects are nurtured.” (Whelan p. 101)
“Darkness is the ancient womb. Night-time is womb time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything; the struggle for identity and impression falls away. We rest in the night.” (John O’Donohue Anam Cara p.2)
So enjoy this sacred season. Curl up near the fireside of your heart. And as you rest, plant the seeds of newness of life and of spirit that will awaken with the earth in Springtime.
Creative Fire in Africa
Africa is one of those places in the world where one can experience the dramatic contrast between the intense, almost blinding light and fire of the sun during the day, and the deep darkness of the night. People of the northern hemisphere feel the need to protect themselves against the searing light of the day, and find themselves stumbling or walking with great caution in the darkness. The people of Africa have adapted to both, carrying on creative and productive lives during the day hours, and developing a capacity for seeing which allows them to move trustingly and confidently in the dark.
Preparing for my recent delegation experience to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to be followed by some days in Rwanda, I had tucked into my bags some possible resources for prayer, including some of the mantras from the ecumenical community of Taize in France. One of these mantras reads: Dans nos obscurities, allume le feu qui ne s’eteint jamais, ne s’eteint jamais. The community translates it into English as: Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away. These words were to sing in my heart and soul throughout my time in the two countries.
The peoples of the Congo and of Rwanda have lived, and are living, “the darkest night”. For many years, they have been exploited unjustly, and have been inflicted with the most cruel and abhorrent violence, rape and killing by destructive forces and a total disrespect for human rights. They know loss, grief, and despair beyond what we can ever imagine. Those who suffer most are the vulnerable women and children. One of the main focuses of our delegation to the Congo was to become more aware of this great suffering which seems to have no end.
As we entered into the lives of the people in the Congo, I was soon moved by the amazing faith which poured forth from them. With no visible end to the destruction, they prayed aloud in praise and thanks to God. Crushed with despair and pain, they cried out to God who, they trusted, was listening to their prayer. Indeed, they brought alive for me the words of the mantra. In their darkest night, they relate to a God of love who kindles a divine fire which can never be destroyed. Recognizing and receiving the mysterious energy of this Fire, they move from day to day in a faith which could not be easily explained to someone who does not recognize the Fire. And amongst these people, we also experienced the creativity and life-enhancing quality of the Fire. Groups who have been educated in the inherent rights of the human person are slowly spreading this message of hope and empowerment. Women, once crushed in spirit, witnessed to us of their transformation.
The story of one woman could not be contained in words alone. As she rose to share, she broke into a sacred dance and she chanted the unfolding of her loss. Her home having been attacked by military, her husband and three children were killed before her eyes, after which she was cruelly raped and left almost for dead herself. Now, in our midst, her arms raised above her head, they shook almost like the flickering of flames as she cried out her pain to God. And then she chanted her salvation story as she was found by a human rights organization, Heritiers de la justice. Loved, nurtured and brought tothe hospital for healing, she also grew in dignity and courage as she learned of her human rights. Her body continuing the rhythmic shaking, as her vibrating voice rose in thanks and praise, she was a living fire amongst us. I stood behind her, drawn into her experience and found myself raising my hand to support the healing power. I became one with the fire. Eliza shared that her transformation is an amazement to her. She can now bear witness before a crowd of persons and she kindles the fire of life and empowerment in other women.
We also visited a project of Heritiers de la justice, Paillote de paixwhose purpose is to support and empower the most vulnerable women in isolated country villages. We met, and listened to, women who had come to recognize their rights as human beings, as women equal to men. In order to earn an income, the only work available was carrying stones from a quarry up a steep hill to road level where a truck would transport the stones to construction sites. Before they received the education and support of Heritiers, their employers exploited their vulnerability, and refused to pay them their wages for this exhausting work. We could only imagine the dejection and physical depletion of these women. On the day we met them, they wished to witness to the life which had been given to them. We watched as a group of these women began their ascent up the hill carrying the heavy stones in cloth sacks on their backs. They broke into a chorus of song which echoed through the valley and ignited a fire in my entire being. As they reached the road and deposited their stones, the song continued, and they moved to join our group. With us, they then began a dance to accompany the song. It was so alluring that I could not respond other than by entering the dance, even attempting to capture the sounds of the song, and join in its infectious energy of joy. The faces of these women were radiant. How could
they, so exhausted from their laborious work, have such energy? It could only be the Fire enkindled within their souls, and I was swept up into that glorious Fire. I felt communion with them, and with all women who live at one with the gift of Creative Fire. Later we were told that the words they sang were words of thanks and praise for the intervention of Heritiers de la justice in their lives, and also for the presence of our delegation. Such presence strengthened the fire of their courage and hope.
I could share very many more stories of struggle, faithful persistence for justice, risking of lives for human rights. Personally, I faced some physical and emotional challenges. The Communion of Creative Fire, I can honestly say, was a source, throughout, of strength, solidarity and love. And I could feel palpably the reality, many times, that our circle was enlarging to embrace these women from another hemisphere. The Fire can never be limited or contained, and it will never die away. May the power of that Fire continue to bring liberation, peace, and wholeness. Mary Ellen