Encountering Sophia in Sacred Places

The earth around my home is bursting with green life, flowering, spreading, growing taller in prodigal exuberance. A forest of Queen Anne’s lace has emerged, blocking the path where I used to walk. Impossible to recall winter days, the ground frozen metres below the snow. If spring happened only once in a lifetime we would never recover from wonder.

On these June days, I sit outdoors reading Carol P. Christ’s “Rebirth of the Goddess” (Addison Wesley Pub., 1997), watching the Bonnechere River take its sweet time towards the Ottawa. I read of ancient cultures where the source of the life that permeates earth was honoured as Goddess, that this deep knowing was eroded as warfare and practices of domination superseded the earlier harmony of cultures that lived close to the earth.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 earlier time of the Goddess 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.”

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 something of that same presence.

roofless church with Mary statue on Achill Island

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 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.
well3 on Achill Island

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.

That moment marks a sacred beginning as my life continues to be interwoven with a presence of love for whom I have no name.

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