Category Archives: Baba Yaga Crone Threefold aspect of the

Sophia: an Embodied Presence

As I continue to experience and reflect upon the ways the Sophia Presence reveals herself to us, I am coming to understand that hers is an embodied presence. As Maiden, as Mother, as Crone, within mystics of the past or women present in our lives, she shows herself in moments of light or deep need.

 I met the Sacred Feminine Presence through someone I would call a true Baba Yaga. Many years ago, I interviewed a woman renowned for her wisdom and holiness. She lived in the deep woods by the Madawaska River in the Ottawa Valley. Her name was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Like the Baba Yaga, she was Russian.  Catherine, from an aristocratic family, had escaped from the Revolution barely alive after almost starving at the hands of the Red Guard. Arriving in Canada in 1921, she vowed her life to God, working for a time in Toronto, then in Harlem operating Friendship Houses for the poor. In 1947, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, settled in the Madawaska Valley, creating Madonna House, a community of love and world-wide service that flourishes today, more than twenty- five years after her death.

Catherine_Doherty_1970

Catherine Doherty

On that October day in 1979, when I travelled from Ottawa to interview her, Catherine was 84 years old. I had prepared my questions carefully, rehearsing them on the three-hour drive. Armed with camera, notebook and tape recorder, I was eager for the encounter, already anticipating the wonderful article I would write for the Catholic newspaper I edited.

 

When I arrived at Madonna House, I was welcomed and invited into the dining room where some one hundred people were gathered around wooden tables, laid with platters heaped with an abundance of vegetables and meats from their farm and gardens. After lunch, everyone remained seated while Catherine gave her daily teaching, a mixture of red pepper and honey, sweet fire for the spirit.

Afterwards, I followed Catherine and her secretary to a small library for the interview.

 What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.

You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

Whooops. I hadn’t been taking notes nor had I thought to turn on my tape recorder. Intent on the interview that would follow, I had scarcely heard a word Catherine had spoken. Now I remembered nothing.

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?

You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

But I was a modern woman, a Post-Vatican Two woman, perhaps even Postmodernist, though I did not at that time know the term. I persisted. Many people today find it hard to know how to live the Gospel in this time. Will you offer some guidance in their confusion? I want to be able to quote your words in the article l am writing for our Diocesan paper. Catherine, who is Jesus for us now?

You, a nun, ask me that? You should know the answer yourself. And if you are a nun, why aren’t you wearing a habit?

 

Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.

Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

 I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.

I don’t talk about my friends.

I was outraged.  No one I had interviewed before had ever treated me like this.  I struggled on until Catherine herself ended the interview, saying to me: I’d like to interview you. Not now. Later. You are living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart and the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you.

It was four months before I had cooled down sufficiently to write the article. In those months, inklings of insight had been making their way through me. I began dimly to understand what Catherine had tried to do. I had been speaking with a mystic, a woman who, as I learned later, had fallen in love with God at the age of six. I didn’t ask her about the great love that was the ruling passion in her life. Nor about the price she had paid in suffering and misunderstanding as she followed that love’s promptings. I sat with her, dressed in my late-twentieth-century outfit, asking about adapting the Gospel, altering it to suit the times, as though it were an outdated garment.

 

Unlike Vasilisa, I hadn’t the wisdom to ask her for what I really needed – fire.

 

Catherine had wanted to speak of fire, and I wasn’t prepared for that. She tried to cut through my careful persona, find the woman under the journalist.  It would be many years before I could appreciate fully what she had been offering me. She wanted to light a fire in me, give me a skull that was aflame with passionate love. I wasn’t ready for her gift.

 

But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.

It’s called A Woman in Love.

 

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World: Part Two

Dolores Whelan continues:

A story from the Celtic tradition that illustrates the importance of the cailleach and her energy is the story of “Niall of the Nine Hostages”. Niall and his four brothers come to a well to get a drink of water. The well is being guarded by an old woman who represents the cailleach or hag. When the first brother goes to the well, she tells him that if he wants to drink the water, he must give her a kiss. He is horrified and refuses; she sends him away. The other three brothers go in turn on the same errand, and each refuses to kiss the hag.

crone

As the story goes:

Then it was Niall’s turn. Faced with the same challenge, he kissed the old hag and embraced her. When he looked again, she had changed into the most beautiful woman in the world.

“What art thou?” said the boy.

“King of Tara, I am Sovereignty . . . your seed shall be over every clan.”(1)

This story suggests that in order to have access to the life-enhancing energy represented by the water in the well, it is necessary for the young masculine to embrace this particular and perhaps unattractive aspect of the feminine energy.

Why is this so? The cailleach represents the wisdom gathered by living in right relationship with the earth, something that requires reflection, stillness, and attentiveness. It knows more clearly what is needed and what is possible in each situation, and it is aware of the consequences of particular actions. It knows how to proceed slowly; it understands the value of times of waiting and times of allowing. It knows how to be and how to act.

So how can we, you and I, begin the journey back towards wholeness and balance?
Brigid in her cailleach form can help us to embrace these difficult and fearful aspects of our lives. The cauldron, a central image in both the Celtic and other traditions, is a vessel for transformation and transmutation. In many stories, the cauldron is first filled with unpalatable raw things, which then are used to create a nourishing soup using the transforming energy of the universe through the action of fire and water.

The transformation of the contents of the cauldron is supervised by the cailleach energy, which works inwardly, quietly, and slowly to bring about an unforced and timely rebirth. The transformation of the cauldron’s contents concentrates their essence and offers them back in a new and more suitable form.

From this process, we learn that the possibility of transformation and re-birth always exists, no matter how devitalised something appears to be. A new rebirth can be achieved when we submit ourselves and our concerns to the inward and slow transformational energy of the cauldron and the cailleach.

Philosopher Richard Kearney in his poem “Bridget’s Well” speaks of the importance of this inward and downward journey and suggests that it is the only way to access the life-giving and inspiring fire of Brigid that lies underneath the water.

I will rest now at the bottom of Bridget’s well
I will follow the crow’s way
Footprint by footprint
In the mud down here
I won’t come up
Until I am calmed down
And the earth dries beneath me
And I have paced the caked ground
Until smooth all over
It can echo a deeper voice
Mirror a longer shadow (2)

This poem suggests the importance of that deep journey to the well where the source of new life and the fire of passion is found. At Imbolc (Feb 1st) the tiny spark of new light discovered in the deep womb darkness of the winter solstice has grown sufficiently to safely emerge from that inner world and begin to transform winter into spring ! At this time Brigid appears as the fresh maiden of springtime emerging from the womb of the cailleach, queen of winter. Here Brigid embodies the energy that breathes life into the mouth of dead winter. The energy of Brigid at Imbolc is the energy of Yes, and it can only emerge from the place of stillness!

Brigid is also closely associated with the life- giving aspect of fire, a fire that doesn’t burn but which can never be fully quenched. When this fire comes from a clear and deep space, as happens following the inward journey, it will be significant and filled with truth and potency.

 

This life-giving fire will act within individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all life forms can partake in the symphony of new life emerging each springtime! The fire discovered through this deep journey is an inner light which guides each of us to find our next step!

Richard Kearney in his poem “Brigit’s Well” also speaks of the re-emergence of a new fire born of a deeper place within:

Then the fire may come again
Beneath me, this time
Rising beyond me
No narcissus- flinted spark
Behind closed eyes
But a burning bush
A fire that always burns away
But never is burnt out (3)

I believe that the archetypal energy of Brigid, the embodiment of the divine feminine, present within the essence of the Celtic tradition, has the capacity to lead and support us in transforming the present wasteland into a new life- sustaining society. For this to happen, it is necessary for us to understand that the archetypal energy that Brigid represents is a real aspect of the human psyche, one that has been largely dormant over the past few hundred years, but is now re-emerging.

Each of us can become keeper of the Brigid flame by developing and living those qualities and values that distinguished her. As we align ourselves with her archetypal energies, she supports us to courageously and safely face the demons of this time. She teaches us how to stand still in a wobbling world, to act as a unifying force, to hold the space of possibility and so become agents of transformation.

Dolores Whelan  (doloreswhelan.ie)  reprinted with permission

Notes/references:
1 Amergin Jan de Fouw Amergin Wolfhound Press Dublin 2000 ( afterword )
2, 3 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147

The Third Aspect of the Mother Goddess

Seeking the ancient footprints of the Sacred Feminine Presence, we take the path of myth and fairy tale. Here we find beautiful maidens, loving mothers. Research by historians into the distant past has garnered glimpses of a time when the great goddess was honoured as both maiden and mother. In her guise as Mother, she holds all of life in her embrace even as the Earth does. She was known as the ground of being, the giver and taker of life. In her form as Maiden, she was seen as the power of regeneration, the rebirth experienced each spring.

Old stories are replete with maidens and mothers, but there is a third aspect of feminine power that we glimpse only briefly. She is the Wise One, the aged one-who-knows, the cailleach. In Egypt, I encountered this fierce all-knowing one as Sekhmet. For the ancient Celts, this threefold aspect of the Sacred Feminine was honoured as the Trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone. Patriarchal societies and religions could tame the maiden, subjugate her through submission to a father, then to a husband as his wife and mother of his children. But there is no subjugating of a crone. She claims her fierce power, her independence, her magic. When the castle doors fly open, kings and popes alike tremble.

Here is an old Russian tale of the fierce crone: the Baba Yaga.

Vasalisa, a young maiden on the cusp of womanhood, is the most beautiful girl in the Russian village where she lives. On her feet are shiny red boots, ready to walk with her into a life of happiness. But Vasalisa is not happy. Her beloved mother has died, her father has remarried, and her stepmother and stepsisters, all smiles in his presence, treat the young Vasalisa with calculated cruelty in his absence. Envying her beauty, maddened by her sweet disposition, they try to rob her of both by giving her all the hardest tasks in the household: chopping firewood, lighting the stove, cleaning the floors, as well as all the cooking. Her hands are becoming raw, chapped and calloused, her complexion reddened by the stove’s flames, but Vasalisa still does not lose a drop of her sweetness. “Yes, of course”, “as you wish”, “right away”, she responds to their every order.

This sweetness is like poison to her stepmother. One day when Vasalisa is outdoors chopping wood, the stepmother speaks to her two daughters in a voice that is low and husky with rage: “Enough. I can stand no more of her. Let us contrive to make the fire go out. I shall send the girl into the deep woods to fetch a live coal from the fierce Baba Yaga. That witch will make short work of her. Her bones will be gnawed by the wild dogs before morning.”

So it is that as dusk deepens, Vasalisa is making her way into the heart of the forest in search of the Baba Yaga. If you look at her white face, her large frightened eyes, your heart will go out to her, but look more closely. There is courage in the child. Watch her reach into the pocket of her apron, nod slowly and smile….
Vasalisa has a secret, a gift from her dying mother, a tiny doll she carries always in her pocket. “Hide her. Feed her when she is hungry,” her mother had said. “And when you are uncertain or afraid, ask her to guide you.”
At each turning of the forest path, at each fork and crossroad, Vasalisa touches the doll, and the doll guides her surely through the darkness.
A horseman dressed all in black rides by on a stallion dark as a starless night. Suddenly Phrygian night envelops the forest. Vasalisa walks on. Hours pass and another horseman, this one all in white upon a milky horse, appears and it is dawn. A third horseman, all in scarlet riding upon a roan red horse, gallops past her. The sun rises, red as flame.

In the full light of morning, Vasalisa comes upon a strange house that dances on chicken legs, its doors and windows securely latched with bones. “Is this the house we seek?” Vasalisa asks the doll. “Yes” says the doll, even as the Baba Yaga herself swoops out of the sky, home from her night’s revels. She hovers above the child in her cauldron, a gnarled and fiercesome creature more ugly than any nightmare could create.
“Who are you? What do you want?” the Baba Yaga roars.
Trembling, but standing firm, the child answers, “I come from the house beyond the woods. Our fire has gone out, and my stepmother sent me to you to ask for a live coal.”
The Baba Yaga snarls, “Careless people! Exactly what I would expect from you! And why should I give you a coal?”
Vasalisa answers as the doll in her pocket prompts her, “Because I ask.”
Something softens for an instant in the Baba Yaga. “Well that is the right answer.”

But then she states her terms. Vasalisa must serve her for three days, washing her clothes preparing her meals, performing whatever other chores are assigned. If Vasalisa does all to the Baba Yaga’s complete satisfaction, she will receive what she asks for. If not, she will DIE!

And so Vasalisa enters the strange house, and sets to work at once. On that and on the next evening, before she sets out on her haunts, the Baba Yaga assigns one further task so utterly impossible that Vasalisa is in despair. But as soon as the witch has gone, her doll says, “Rest now. I’ll help you with that task.” And in the morning when Vasalisa awakens, the impossible task is already done: sorting poppy seeds from dirt or sorting mildewed corn from good corn. On each day, Vasalisa devotes the hours before the Baba Yaga’s return to preparing her supper, cleaning her house, washing her clothes.

But when the Baba Yaga returns, Vasalisa watches in wonder as a surprising thing happens. The crone summons hands from the air, hands that crush the poppy seeds into juice, hands that shuck the corn into neat piles, then disappear.
The Baba Yaga appears both pleased and displeased by Vasalisa’s accomplishments. She softens enough to say, “Is there anything you wish to ask me?” before adding crossly, “but take care what you ask, for too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

Vasalisa asks about the three horsemen who passed her in the woods.
“Ah,” says the Baba Yaga, “you met my night, my dawn, my sunrise. What else do you want to ask?”
Vasalisa thinks of the mysterious hands that appear in the air to squeeze poppy seeds, and shuck corn. But the doll in her pocket whispers, “No”.
“There is nothing more,” Vasalisa answers, “for as you say yourself old mother, too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

At this the Baba Yaga almost smiles. “You are wise for your years. From whence comes this wisdom?”
“From the blessing my kind mother gave me before she died,” Vasalisa answers.
Hearing these words, the Baba Yaga flies into a rage. She roars, “Speak not to me of blessings or kind mothers. Get out! Get out! Get out!” At the sound of her voice, her door flies open. The Baba Yaga shoves Vasalisa out into the night. Before the child can recover herself, the Baba Yaga is behind her. In her gnarled hands she holds a skull with a burning coal inside it. Seizing a bone from her fence, the Baba Yaga pushes the skull onto the bone and thrusts it into Vasalisa’s hands, shouting, “Here! Take your flame and go!”
The girl opens her mouth to say thank you, but her doll whispers, “No. Do as she says. Just go!”

And so she goes, returning home through the dark wood, guided by the doll in her pocket. But the grinning skull frightens her so that she wants to throw it away. The doll in her pocket, sensing this, whispers, “No. Trust it. It will help you.”
As Vasalisa at last emerges from the woods, her father’s house stands in utter darkness. Her stepmother and sisters come running out to meet her.
“We could not light the fire while you were gone,” the stepmother says.
Vasalisa notices that the skull is looking intently at her stepmother and stepsisters, with a gaze full of knowing. But unaware of danger, the stepmother seizes the burning skull from her hands and runs indoors to light the fire.
When she wakens in the morning, Vasalisa comes downstairs to begin her day’s chores. At first, she can find no sign of her cruel stepmother and sisters.
But on the floor beside the stove she finds three burnt cinders.

I leave you with this story for reflection until next week. You may wonder: What is this doll, the gift of her dying mother? What did Vasalisa really require from the Baba Yaga? What does the Baba Yaga’s response about the three horsemen reveal to us about her true identity?

Take care. Magic is afoot. And immense power.