Powers of the Universe: Cataclysm

 

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.

But 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.

Cygnus Loop Nebula:  a small portion of the nebula which is actually the expanding blastwave from a stellar cataclysm — a supernova explosion — which occurred about 15,000 years ago. The supernova remnant lies 2,500 light years away in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.

But 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 & Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011)

The life story of a star is an astounding example of cataclysm giving birth to new life. But 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 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, and felt a deep joy…

Concurrent with this extinction of species we have 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 for revealing what is really worth valuing in life?

Do we not experience this re-assessment of what really matters in our present COVID 19 crisis?

The twentieth century mystic Etty Hillesum, shortly before her death in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of twenty nine, wrote words that may be a light for us in this time:

 Etty Hillesum 

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.

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.

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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.

When Brian Swimme’s DVD series was released fifteen years ago, he could already see that homeostasis was 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… Why?

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 happening in 2005 for fossil fuel in tar sands or through fracking, poisoning the water to release gas, Swimme described as 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 ….  

Powers of the Universe: Emergence

Emergence and 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.

In her teaching on the Powers of the Universe, Jean Houston speaks about how we can work with the universe in what it 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, creates in us a cosmic womb so the universal power can work in us. Thus, 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, I would like to focus on religion/spirituality/our way of relating with the Sacred.

More than thirty years ago the eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote that:

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 recognize 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)

Thomas Berry

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 a fragment, a fractal, 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 them here, that have awakened their 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.

Statue of the Black Madonna in Holy Wisdom Benedictine Monastery in Wisconsin 

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 her own value that were lacking to her in the time 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?

Statue of Brigid of Kildare  

Brigid of Ireland has been called “the acceptable face of the Feminine Divine”. Ancient Goddess and Christian Saint, Brigid is the threshold woman for our time.

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 most 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 at this table, 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 times require.

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.

How will we assist in this Emergence?

Powers of the Universe Two: Allurement

Your allurements draw you into the activity of evoking the life about you

(Brian Swimme The Universe is a Green Dragon, Bear &Company 1984)

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.

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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 million 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.

Etain Midir Ardagh statue

Swimme suggests that if we are attracted, we have already been acted upon; and 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.

And 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 thirteenth 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.

Dragonfly3

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. 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.

 

 

 

Sophia and the Journey into Radiance

Almost every day since the COVID-19 pandemic began, leading to radical shifts in our daily lives, fresh perceptions, epiphanies arise about life on our planet. It’s as if we are part of a global learning experience, a mandatory home schooling.

One of the effects of our self-isolation is that we are learning how much we need to be connected with animals, with nature, with natural settings, for our own wholeness and well-being. Thomas Berry said that “the natural world gives us an interior world. It gives us a healing presence, a fulfilling presence.” It was Berry who counselled many decades ago that we set aside our Bibles for twenty years, to read, to learn from the Scriptures of the Earth.

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And it was Berry who introduced the young cosmologist Brian Swimme to the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Through Teilhard, Swimme came to understand that there is a spiritual dimension as well as a physical one to everything in existence, and that the universe is in a deep process of transfiguration, moving towards beauty, embodying qualities regarded as divine, such as compassion, truth and love.

With Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme co-authored The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era -A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (HarperSan Francisco 1992)

In 2004, Swimme created the DVD series The Powers of the Universe.This astounding new moment in the planet’s history is preparing us to recognize and claim these powers within us.

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Seamlessness Continue reading Sophia and the Journey into Radiance

Oceans of Love on Earth Day

In honour of Sophia and Earth Day, I offer these words by  Miriam Therese MacGillis of Genesis Farm, a friend of Thomas Berry:

We now know that we’re alive because the earth is alive. Unlike Mars, or the moon, or Venus, or the other planets in our solar system, we’re a water planet. Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is salt water. That’s why the earth is alive. It’s a fluid planet. But in our old cosmology, we call these fluids oceans. We name them . . . Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Antarctic. They’re places. They’re things. They’re “its”…

You swim in them, you fish in them, you sail in them, you own them. You own home fronts on them. And if your cosmology is such that those are just places, then it’s very logical to dump wastes there, including our very lethal wastes.

But now we’re beginning to understand that the oceans are the actual fluids of the planet. And everything that lives has the ocean in it. The oceans are not oceans. They are one single salt water system which flows through everything on the surface of the earth that has life in it.

That’s why things are alive–maple trees, bananas, or you. If we took you to the chemistry lab and had you analyzed right now, regardless of your size or weight, you would be seventy percent salt water. And it’s the same salt water as is flowing through the oceans. The rest of you would be the minerals that form the crust of the earth.

We’re the earth, with consciousness, with soul, with spirit. We’re the earth in a new form. But we are the earth!

And now we understand that these fluids within the oceans are in us.

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Because the oceans become the clouds and the clouds become the rain and the rain becomes the corn. And we eat the corn. And we get our minerals and our salt water replaced. And we cry the ocean. We excrete the ocean. We are just beginning to realize that the oceans are alive because over this long, painstaking process toward life, they became a community of millions of varied species and organisms, all of which are a fabric and a community of life.

They are totally interdependent, all essential for each other’s existence and for the well- being of the whole earth so that it can function and constantly maintain the oxygen needed by everything that lives.

As we continue to dump our toxins in the oceans, we’re beginning to see gaps in the fabric. These marine organisms never evolved with the capacity to endure this sudden onslaught of poisonous new substances. Many can’t reproduce. They’re becoming extinct.

And as one becomes extinct, the food chain gets altered. And as those toxins build up in the food chain, more complex species are becoming extinct, so that the oceans could literally die. Jacques Cousteau says we have very few years left. If we don’t change what we’re doing, the oceans are going to become toxic; they will have lost their capacity to break down toxins and to keep oxygen flowing. If the oceans do become toxic, then the clouds are going to be toxic, and the rain will be toxic, and the corn will be toxic. And our children will be toxic, and their tears will be toxic.

If the oceans die, that’s literally the death of the planet. And if the planet dies, the only cause of it will have been consciousness, because without consciousness, the whole thing was coded toward life. Something’s interfering with the process. There are dynamics happening at the most profound level which are altering the capacity of the earth to do what the universe has mandated it to do. That is to continue to live and to continue to heal and nourish and regenerate itself. Consciousness is violating this mandate. And that’s us.

 

 

 

 

 

Apostle to the Apostles

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This Magnificent statue created by artist Elizabeth Frink on the grounds of the Salisbury Cathedral in England shows the strong, purposeful Magdalene striding forth on her apostolic journey as “Apostle to the Apostles”.

“High on an escarpment crowning the medieval walled city of Vezalay France, stands the magnificent basilica of St. Mary Magdalene”. That is how Episcopal priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault opens her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (Shambala, Boston and London, 2010). Bourgeault spent Holy Week of 2005 with the young monastic order in residence at the Cathedral of Vezalay. Here she would have a stunning awareness of Mary Magdalene’s presence in the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Bourgeault tells us:

This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday Liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity….

The late afternoon shadows were already dimming the cathedral when we finished with communion, followed by the traditional stripping of the altar. And then came the ceremony I am speaking of. Two of the sisters brought forward a small corpus – the crucified Christ figure that traditionally hangs on Roman Catholic crosses. It was carved in wood, about two feet long. Tenderly they wrapped it in the altar cloth, laid it on the altar, and placed beside it an icon of the Shroud of Turin (the portrait of Jesus allegedly imprinted on his original burial shroud and revealed through radiocarbon dating). They set a small candle and incense burner at the foot of the altar. And then, as sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.

Enchanted by the mystical beauty of all this – the smell of the incense, the final shafts of daylight playing against the great stone walls of the cathedral – I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. I heard the description of Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body of Christ, wrapping it (just as the sisters had just done) in a linen cloth, laying it in a tomb. And then out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau…”
That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?

Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it reads: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. …. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left…. Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospel and actually read the story in a new way. (pp.5-6)

Bourgeault reflects further that much of what we know of Mary Magdalene has been absorbed “through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.” (p. 6)

Turning to the Gospels directly, Bourgeault focuses mainly on John’s account of the resurrection. Here is the story:

Mary (Magdalene) arrives alone at the tomb in the early hours of the morning to discover that the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away. She hurries off to find Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who race each other to the site, discover the tomb empty and the grave cloths rolled up, and return home in bewonderment. After the two of them have gone their way, Mary stays behind, weeping beside the tomb. Then, in a unique and immortally reverberating encounter:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

mary_magdalene by Sieger Koder

She thought it was the gardener and answered him, “… if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rabboni” – which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me; you see I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
So Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me. (John 20:14-18)

Bourgeault continues, pre-empting the June announcement from the Vatican:

It is on the basis of this announcement that Mary earned the traditional title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” The first to witness to the resurrection, she is also the one who “commissions” the others to go and announce the good news of the resurrection. (p. 8)

One small synchronicity I would like to point out: the verse in the Gospel of John cited above: Jesus said to her, “Mary.” is numbered John 20:16. The year of Mary Magdalene’s full recognition….

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives