Egypt. November 2008. With my co-travellers on this spiritual journey, led by Jean Houston, I am on the Island of Philae in the Nile River. As we stand crowded together in the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis, Jean is reading aloud from the writings of Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian.
Sanctuary of Isis on Philae Island, Egypt
In the story, a hapless magician named Lucius has cried out to Isis for help. She responds. The way the Sacred One identifies herself to Lucius startles me: “ I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names… “Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing. Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid. Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”
After the reading, we are invited to call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine. I hear voice after voice calling out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to me, titles I’d learned as a child, and they refer to Mary. I listen: Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. I hear Jean’s voice, strong, certain: Mary in all her forms.
Mary, in all her forms….
For these darkest days of the year, we are companioned by Mary of Nazareth, the woman wrapped in silence, the one who waits in the shadow for the great birthing, who “ponders in her heart” the wonders that follow upon the coming of her child. Mary has left us no written word. The little we know of her from the Gospels is sketchy at best, her appearances brief, her words cryptic. Yet her influence on Christian spirituality is staggering in its power. Who is this woman, and how has she risen from a quiet life in the outposts of the Roman Empire to become, as the Church proclaims her, “Queen of Heaven and Earth”?
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…”
At the call of Pope John 23rd, 2600 Roman Catholic Bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960’s. 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 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 That encircles dark to become flesh and bone,” as John O’Donohue has written.
This is profound mystery. For Mary. For each one of us who carries the Holy within, 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.”