Category Archives: Celtic Christianity

Waiting in Advent Darkness

Advent: Enchantment, Disenchantment, Re-enchantment       November 27, 2018

Advent was once my favourite Liturgical season. The weaving of a wreath that smelled of fir trees in winter forests. The candles whose shared light grew steadily with each week. The mysterious darkness of earth and heart, as both awaited the radiance, the wonder of Christmas. Enchantment.

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full moon of Novmber caught in a tree

There came a dark November day when I knew I would not gather the evergreen boughs that fell to the earth from generous trees near my home. I would not purchase four candles (three purple and one rose-coloured). I would not spend four weeks awaiting Christmas.

These symbols no longer held meaning: the four weeks of Advent were meant to represent the four thousand years that humans awaited the birth of Christ. It was the Irish priest-writer Diarmuid O’Murchu who pointed out that paleontologists estimate human life on this planet was conscious at least six million years ago, and that timeline keeps getting pushed back…. Cosmologists, most notably the luminous Teilhard de Chardin, acknowledge that there is a form of spirit/light/consciousness in all that exists on the planet, including rocks. That takes us back to the beginnings of our universe, more than thirteen billion years…

Further, as O’Murchu suggests, the earliest conscious humans expressed in their artwork and ritual an awarenss of a power in the universe that held them in love and light in all earth’s ages before the coming of Christ…

So what place can the four weeks of Advent have in this new Universe Story?  The allurement of the Universe as the expression, the visible Presence of Love in our lives, was/is so powerful that I gladly relinquished the lure of those dark weeks of Advent. Disenchantment.

And then I began to fall in love with the Winter Solstice. I discovered that this amazing yearly time (which for our ancestors only became evident in earlier dawns and later sunsets after a few days) was the reason why the early Christians chose December 25th to celebrate the Birth of Christ. Celtic scholar Dara Molloy, author of The Globalization of God, told me when I visited him in Ireland that it was the Celtic Christians who also suggested June 24th, a few days after the Summer Solstice, the time of the waning of the light, for the Feast of John the Baptist. Hadn’t John said of the Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease”?

Slowly, over recent years, the beauty, passion and power of the Christ-story are being rewoven on the loom of our new knowledge of the Universe.

Bruce Sanguin who has done this with clarity and poetic elegance in his article on “Evolutionary Cosmology”:

The season of Advent is an affirmation of the dark mysteries of life. In these four weeks, we enter into a deepening darkness, a fecund womb where new life stirs. Before the great Flaring Forth 13.8 billion years ago, there was only the empty dark womb of the Holy One.

We have a bias against darkness privileging the light in our tradition. But most of the universe is comprised of what scientists call dark matter….for the universe to exist in its present form, and not fly off in all directions, the gravitational pull of the dark matter is necessary. Creation needs the dark in order to gestate. Advent is a season of contemplation and meditation in which the soul, if allowed, falls willingly back into that primordial darkness out of which new worlds are birthed.

When Mary uttered those five words, “Let it be to me”, she was assenting to the descent into the sacred mystery that angels announce in the seasons of Advent and Christmas. We are called to trust this descent into darkness, making ourselves available as the ones through whom a holy birth can happen.

To go deep into the Season of Advent is to trust that there are galaxies of love stirring within the womb of your being, supernovas of compassion ready to explode and seed this wondrous world with Christ-shaped possibilities

Are we willing with Mary to consent to the birth of the divine coming through us? Are we willing to actually be a reconfigured presence of the originating Fireball, prepared to be centre of creative emergence – to give birth to the sacred future that is the dream of God? Are we willing both personally and in the context of our faith communities to birth the Christ?

So bring on the Christmas pageants….and when that cardboard star-on- a- stick glitters above the baby Jesus, think of it as your cosmological kin winking at you and settling over you as well, lighting you up as a sacred centre through whom the Christ waits to be born.   

Re-enchantment.

We wait in darkness, and we do not wait alone, as poet Jessica Powers writes:

I live my Advent in the womb of Mary

And on one night when a great star swings free

From its high mooring and walks down the sky

To be the dot above the Christus i,

I shall be born of her by blessed grace.

I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place,

With hope’s expectation of nativity.

I knew for long she carried me and fed me,

Guarded and loved me, though I could not see,

But only now, with inward jubilee,

I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:

Someone is hidden in this dark with me.

 

 

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New World Part Two

  We continue this week with Dolores Whelan’s article on Brigid:

As we consider the qualities embodied by Brigid as reflected in the stories of her life as abbess of Kildare Ireland, it is obvious that these qualities are similar to those present in her incarnation as pre-Christian goddess.

Brigid is considered a threshold person, one who can straddle both sides and remain detached. This quality, which is central in her life, is highlighted in the stories of her birth, which attest that she was born on the threshold of the house, neither within nor without; that her father was a noble man, her mother a slave; and that he was a pagan, her mother a Christian. From her origins, she has this ability to stand in the void and remain centred within it, while holding the creative tension between two opposite perspectives. Many stories from her life portray her as a person capable of resolving conflicts in a healthy manner. Being centred and aligned within herself, she is detached and can grasp the energies of both sides clearly, thereby facilitating a resolution. She has the ability to stand still and remain focused, in spite of the uncertainty present in the outer world.

 the ability to stand still and remain focused

As a child and a young woman Brigid constantly challenged the accepted norms of her society, especially those expressed by her father when they opposed to her own values. This reflects Brigid as a person who lives her life from a place of deep inner knowing and inner authority. She also refused to marry any of the suitors that her father arranged for her, because she had chosen a different life path and destiny. She would not compromise her soul journey!

absolute faith in the abundance of the universe

Brigid’s generosity is legendary and is related in numerous stories of her giving away food and clothes to people who came to her monastery or whom she met along the way. This generosity was, it seems, based on her absolute faith in the abundance of the universe to provide all that was needed in each moment. Each time she gave away the butter or meat needed for the next meal it miraculously reappeared in time for that meal!

Brigid’s capacity to bring forth new life, to nourish, to create plenty in the crops or an abundance of the milk from cows, and to manifest or create ex nihilo is a reflection of the true abundance and with the prosperity of the society, living in relationship with the land , created by her. Her life and work thrived because of her deep trust and an absence of fear.

ability to be aligned heaven to earth

It is said that from the moment Brigid learned to know God her mind remained ever focused on God. She remained connected to God and the heavens while living on the earthly plane. Her power of manifestation was a result of this ability to be aligned heaven to earth. The strong connection between her inner and outer worlds allowed her to focus her energy onto a particular intention and ensure its manifestation.

The story how Brigid got the land for her monastery in Kildare is a wonderful example of her ability to manifest what is needed. She states clearly what she needs and asks the local lord for land. First he refused but she is not deterred by this. She pursues her request in a different way by asking, “Give me what land my mantle will cover.”

 a woman who can hold her intention clearly

He says yes! When she placed the mantle on the ground it grew until it covered enough land for the monastery .This reflects a woman who can hold her intention clearly, even when on the surface it seems that her request will not be met!! These inspiring stories of Brigid relate to her active life in the world, where she embodies and live true spiritual power! But what and where is the source of this power?

To fully understand the power and the qualities that Brigid embodied, as reflected in the many stories about her life, we need to begin with an exploration of the role of Brigid as Cailleach, the aspect of the Divine Feminine, that rules during the season of Samhain (winter) at the beginning of the Celtic year. This I believe is the wellspring from which Brigid’s power manifests in the world emerges.

the embodiment of tough mother love

What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine? The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways. It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good.

the cailleach energy….will hold us safely

Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away!

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Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outward activity: a way that values times of active waiting that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

embracing the energy of surrender

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.

However because western society is currently dominated by the young masculine energy, present in both men and women, characterised by its “can do” attitude, there is an urgent need for each of us to make this heroic journey with the cailleach, so that we will become agents for the transformation of our society.

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New World

This is the first of a three part article on Brigid and her importance to us at this crucial time, written by Dolores Whelan and used with her permission. 

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Dolores Whelan

Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all, but those steeped in denial, that all is not well. It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives. We ask what is it in us humans that creates such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

The exclusion of the Feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration create disharmony.

So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life? If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health.

In times of great danger and challenges, cultures often seek the wisdom for the journey ahead in the stories and myths that sustained them in an earlier time. However as Poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnail suggests this requires an understanding that “actual myths and stories themselves soar way above any uses to which they may have been put to already and can and must be retranslated by each generation in terms of their own need and thus liberated into a new consciousness.” (1)

 

Midhir1

 

At the present time there is a wonderful re-emergence of aspects of ancient spiritual traditions by people all over the world. The reconnection and embodiment of these ancient spiritual traditions, myths and stories has the potential to release the spiritual power needed for us to become agents of transformation within our society.

At this time many people are becoming aware of the wisdom of the feminine. As this happens, the absence of genuine feminine energy present in most institutions, both religious and secular, throughout western culture, becomes obvious. To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life. In order to create change within the physical world and in our society it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

My own journey over the past 25 years has been primarily within the Celtic spiritual tradition. This tradition has emerged over many millennia and continues to evolve. It includes the wisdom of the megalithic, the pre-Christian Celtic and the Christian Celtic traditions as they met and engaged with each other through the ages. I believe the rekindling of the flames of this tradition, which have lain dormant for many centuries, “like coals under the smooring awaiting a new kindling” holds a key to the recovery of the wisdom needed to create a more sane society.

“God is good and he has a great mother!” a statement sometimes heard in Ireland, reflects an important truth at the heart of the Celtic spiritual tradition, one that honours the presence of the divine feminine and understands that even God emerges out of the feminine energy of being-ness. The Divine Feminine is present at the heart of this spiritual tradition and plays a central role in both Celtic spirituality and Celtic culture. There are many goddesses within Celtic mythology; however Brigid, as both goddess and saint, occupies a central place as representative of the Divine Feminine within Celtic tradition. 20180129 Bhrigid statue at Solas Bhride

statue of Brigid at Solas Bhride, Kildare

Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance. Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form, as indicated in the prayer “Molamid Brid an mhaighean; Molamid Brid an mhathair; Molamid Brid an cailleach” (Praise to Brigid, the maiden, the mother, and the crone).

 

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the maiden, the mother, the crone

 

These three different, but related manifestations, the maiden, the mother, and the cailleach, or crone, together create a divine feminine trinity. Each aspect of this trinity occupies a different role within the life, death, and rebirth continuum. The Feminine energy is both the harbinger and the birther of new life and is the destroyer of life that has been spent. It is experienced at the thresholds of life and death and rebirth.
In the past 20 years there has been a new awakening of the importance of Brigid and her place within our lives and our world. Her Feastday at Imbolc in now celebrated in many places in Ireland and all over the world. There is an understanding perhaps it is time for us individually and collectively to recover the qualities that Brigid embodied in her lifetime, marking her as a woman of true spiritual power.

 

1   Amergin  Jan  de Fouw   Amergin   Wolfhound Press  Dublin 2000  ( afterword )  no page number

Women Rising Rooted: Brigid’s Festival

If we surrendered
to Earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted,
like trees.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)

At the end of a frigid Canadian January, I have come to Ireland for Brigid’s Festival of Imbolc, the day that welcomes Spring. Brigid is the one who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. In the front garden of my friend, Dolores Whelan, the first thing I see are snowdrops….then one purple crocus, two golden ones.

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snowdrops in Dolores Whelan’s garden

From a window on the upper floor, Dolores shows me that the Hill of Faughart can be seen, aligned with her home. Birthplace of Saint Brigid, 5th c. Abbess of Kildare, Faughart is ancient in memory, a place where the goddess Brigid was honoured in pre-Christian Ireland. Snow drop and crocus, saint and goddess, growing from this earth.

Brigid’s Festival honours both, and in the days that follow the two merge in my awareness, become intertwined, embodied in the fiery women whom I meet: Dolores and the volunteers who planned the events of the festival as well as the presenters, attendees, poets, artists, dancers, singers, writers… each woman aflame.

I listen as they tell their stories, either as a formal part of the festival’s program or casually in conversation over coffee or a meal, or in a pause between sessions.

I listen as Sharon Blackie tells the story recounted in her book If Women Rose Rooted (September Publishing 2016). With a PhD in Neuro-science Sharon found herself in a corporate job where her inner self was dying. Through a labyrinthine journey, one she describes as the feminine form of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, Sharon followed the lure of her heart to the northwest of Scotland and on to Ireland, living on land near the sea where her soul finds a home.

I walk through Una Curley’s art installation of her own “Camino Walk”, her story of walking away from a life of successfully functioning in a corporate position that left her empty inside. Una chose instead the uncertainty and bliss of life as an artist. Una says the way to begin is to tie a piece of thread to a rusty nail and let the life you have designed, the life that no longer serves your soul, unravel… Part of her work traces the early flax industry of Ireland, rooted in the land, uniting the communities around the flax fields in a common endeavor.

Kate Fitzpatrick picks up her violin to express more profoundly than words her journey with women as they sought in the land and soul of Ireland the Healed Feminine. Kate’s quest was to bring peace and forgiveness to her people. The story of her spiritual journey with the Celtic Horse Goddess Macha is told in her book Macha’s Twins (Immram Publishing, Donegal, Ireland 2017)

Ann McDonald leads us in sacred movement, in breathing exercises, finding the power in our solar plexus. Deeply grounded, we release a voice that is resonant. Ann creates songs, receives songs that come to her while walking in pilgrimage or while holding sacred space. Her songs at the Ritual for Brigid’s Feast at Faughart come from deep within, inviting grace to embrace those present in the Oratory.

 

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The Oratory on Faughart Hill on Brigid’s Day, February 1, 2018

 

Dolores, Una, Kate, Ann and Sharon are women whose lives differ on the outside. Yet I saw in each a life rooted in an inner passion, a deeply feminine connection with the land and a quiet walking away from cultural values that are out of harmony with and therefore destructive of the feminine soul.

I understand now that life can be found by returning to the ancient stories, the ancient spirituality that grew out of the land itself, a spirituality that honours women, that cares for the things of earth, that recognizes, as Rilke says, that we are of the same substance …here is his full poem:

How surely gravity’s law
strong as an ocean current
takes hold of even
the smallest thing
and pulls it toward
the heart of the world.

Each thing –
each stone, blossom, child –
is held in place

Only we in our arrogance
push out beyond what
we each belong to –
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to Earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted,
like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely
and confused.

So, like children
we begin again
to learn from the things
because they are in
God’s heart,
they have never left him.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

Sophia in Ireland: Four

I am once more in Ireland, in Mayo, where my father’s people come from. Grey-black weathered stones still shape walls and openings for windows, but the small church on Achill Island, just off the west coast of Ireland, has long since lost its roof. The June morning is cool, ruffled by soft winds, as we twelve women gather under the slate-grey sky around the stone altar.

roofless church with Mary statue on Achill IslandWe have come here seeking an ancient holy well, dedicated to the early Christian Saint Dymphna, (Dimp / Nah) credited with healings. Dymphna was fleeing from her father, a pagan Irish king, her pathway 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.
Around that altar, we are standing where women have been, in recent centuries, forbidden to stand. With that awareness, a power moves within us, along with a joy that has no words. One of the women in our group reads 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
refreshed.
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 walk outdoors, make our way through the old graveyard where in past centuries people from all across the island brought their dead for burial. We find 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 stand here, ourselves a circle, praying silently for those in need of healing.

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Holy Well of Dymphna

One of the women, kneeling to take a photo, discovers a heart-shaped rock, one side deeply carved and creased with lines of breakage, now healed; another picks up a stone with the clear shape of a mother and child. For both these women, the stones hold a reflection of their lives. I walk a little way past the well and see a small silver stream of running water. Without knowing why I feel drawn to do so, I kneel, scoop up water, place it on my forehead, on my heart.

Later that day, I realize with a shiver of wonder that it is the anniversary of my baptism.

This moment marks a sacred beginning. My life becomes interwoven with a presence of love for whom I have no name. My searching will take me back to the ancient days of Ireland, before the Celts arrived there, forward to the spirituality glimpsed by Teilhard de Chardin, to the newly unfolding mysteries of the universe in whose life and powers we share intimately… for these next parts of the story I shall take you back to the Hill of Tara. There is someone there whom you must meet.

Tonight, I follow the thread of the story that began twice seven years ago. Once more I climb Tara’s hill. I feel the same needle pricks of mist against my face, see again the grey shroud of fog that conceals everything except what lies before me: this stone, this sheep, this tussock, this tree. Each arises, disappears, as on that night, the night when I called out to the Old Ones, and no one answered. Now I know the One I seek. I have found the hidden well where she awaits me, and this knowing has transformed my desert into an oasis. This time, I shall call out and be heard. I shall be answered.

Come with me. It is time for us to begin. The one whom we seek allures us with a flow of energy, but to meet her we must first come to stillness. A strong desire for the encounter is our best assurance of being met by the One we seek. She responds to our longing. I cannot tell you her name. I am not certain she has a name. I know her as the Storyteller.

It is through their stories that we will find how the Celts related to the Sacred Presence of Love at the Heart of the Universe. For this storytelling we need someone whose wisdom is as ancient as the lakes and rivers, the rocks and hills of Ireland.

Sophia in Ireland: Three

My experience watching Siamsa Tire (The National Folk Theatre of Ireland) perform “The Children of Lir” shows me that it is within the stories of the ancient Celts that their deepest truths are woven, a silver thread we can learn to see, to follow, to trust.

The Ceile de, or Spouses of God, a monastic order formed in the early centuries of Christianity in Ireland, and rebirthed in our time, tell this story: A remarkable change happened among the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic religion, somewhere around the time of the birth of Christ. A group arose who became known as the Strangers. They spoke out against the ostentations, the warlike behaviour that had characterized the Celts for centuries. They dressed simply in linen, wandered through Ireland, seeking hospitality wherever they were, teaching a new consciousness.

They told stories of a Holy One who would be born of a Virgin, One who would initiate a new time of peace and love. Though the fifth century saint, Patrick, has long been honoured as the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it now seems that the new faith may have arrived as early as the first century. And when these first Christian travellers spoke of a Holy One, born of a Virgin, preaching love, the Celts recognised the tale told by the Strangers. This is why the coming of Christianity to Ireland was without bloodshed, with “nary a martyr” as the old tales say. All it took was a dawn and a song and the ringing of a bell.

Pre-Christian mythology among the Celts told of an invisible god who becomes visible in the feminine, able to be touched with the senses. In one myth a god who wanted to know itself divided into invisible and visible: spirit and matter/ Mater (universe, earth, body). So the Christian story of an invisible Father and a visible mother (Mary) birthing the Christ made sense to the Celts. For them, Christ, born of a heavenly Father and an earthly Mother, represents perfect balance.

Julian of Norwich, in her Celtic Heart, understood that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.

Celtic Christianity was woven into the hearts and souls of a people drawn to mystery rather than to rigidity of belief, rooted in the earth, in story, in music, in laughter. The Celts were naturally drawn to the mysticism of the Gospel of John. They embraced and understood a suffering Messiah, for they needed someone who knew pain as well as ecstasy, who could weep as well as sing, dance and rejoice. The Celts loved Jesus so much that re-imagined him as one of their own. That strange depiction on my wall that I thought was a woman crucified was copied from an 8th century image of Jesus with Celtic features, clothed in a long Celtic robe decorated with spirals…. CrucifixLfrom an 8th c. bronze plaque, St. John’s Rinnagan, County Roscommon, Ireland

 

What happened to this indigenous expression of Christianity? How could such a vibrant, rooted, faith wither? Be subsumed into the more rigid forms of Roman Catholic Christianity? The answer is not one of organic development but rather of a deliberate, sustained and determined crushing of roots, uprooting of plants, replanting with other expressions of Christianity by a Church whose increasingly centralized authority in Rome could not abide differences of expression, and valued conformity of belief and practice over a lived and living indigenous faith.

It took centuries for the Celtic expression of Christianity to be supplanted by the Roman expression, but from the moment in the late fourth century when Pelagius, a Celtic monk, debated with the great Augustine of Hippo that goodness, not sin, is at the heart of life, the death knell was already sounding for Celtic Christianity. Augustine won the debate and became a saint of the Roman Church. Pelagius lost and became a heretic. The doctrine of Original Sin took its place in the Christian story.

When the Normans arrived in Ireland in the 12th century, they replaced Irish monastic life with the large European orders of Augustinians and Benedictines, completing the transmutations in line with the Roman Model of Christianity.

What I’ve learned of Celtic Christianity shows me a weaving, still open for the Kairos moment, still loose enough to receive the shuttle cock carrying the weft thread of our new knowing that we are intimately part of, in fact we are holograms of, an interconnected universe. The weaving of Celtic Christianity has honoured the gifts of women, so denigrated, and the spiritual needs of women, so ignored, by the Roman Church. It has honoured the earth with her sacred cycles of night and day, her active summer days of the bright masculine sun-energy, her contemplative winter days of the dark feminine moon-energy, her birthings and dyings and risings.

One night, during these twice seven years of searching, I had a dream. A huge stone Church soars into the sky, obscuring the light. It is heavy, forbidding, much too burdened with all the laws inscribed upon its stones. It suddenly shakes, then topples backwards. As it falls, its perfect reflection in the lake that lies at its base rises. It is lighter, freer, still magical in openness and colour, with spaces where one might breathe freely, even underwater. It rises slowly even as the stone Church falls backwards. It takes its place in the clean and emptied air.

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(to be continued)

Sophia in Ireland: Two

In the morning I travel across Killarney’s Lough Leane, named Lake of Learning for the Irish monks who drew people from the far reaches of Europe to study on the Isle of Innisfallen. As our launch crosses the living lake, the waters toss and swell and smooth under the wind, swirling in grey mist, absorbing the splashing rain with the same receptive spirit that drinks in the sunlight minutes later. All the while the oak trees, roots deep in the green hills, hold the lake like a cup offered to the thirsty heart.

We come ashore on Innisfallen, and for the next three hours, I walk in the sixth century, circling the small island, stopping to gaze through gaps in the trees when the lake becomes suddenly visible, or when a shaft of sunlight turns the woods into sacred space. I find a smooth place beneath an oak tree. As clouds, like old magicians, obscure, then release, the sun, I open Croker to read what Thomas Moore wrote about this island:

How fair thou art,

let others tell,

while but to feel how fair

is mine.

On the shoreline, I pick up a blackened stone that looks to have two small monks carved on its side. I make my way back to the ruins of the earliest monastery, and stand looking under the lintel into the open doorway and wonder how it felt to enter and become a student here. In the remains of the early chapel, I see a Celtic cross of red sandstone, found in the Lake, its age unknown.

Later I will discover words Seamus Heaney wrote about visiting this ancient chapel:

Inside, in the dark of the stone, it feels as if you are sustaining a great pressure, bowing down like the generations of monks who must have bowed down in meditation and reparation on the floor…But coming out of the cold heart of the stone into the sunlight and dazzle of grass and sea, I felt a lift in my heart, a surge towards happiness that must have been experienced by those monks as they crossed that same threshold centuries ago. (Seamus Heaney Preoccupations London, 1980; in Lost in Wonder p.99, Esther de Waal, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2003)

I am at peace on this island, and find, as Moore says, that it matters not whether the sun surprises or the rain showers dampen. It’s hard to leave when the motor launch returns.

Three nights later, in the west of Ireland, in Tralee, I find my way to the newly-built fieldstone playhouse, home to the Siamsa Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre. Tonight they are to perform “The Children of Lir”.

The magic begins before the curtain rises. I feel a tingling anticipation, the promise of something more, the promise of what I sought on Tara Hill.
The story is sung entirely in Irish by a young man whose voice floats on swans’ wings over the theatre while the actors dance and mime the tale with exquisite grace and beauty. I understand no word of the language of my foremothers and forefathers. I have to rely on programme notes for the storyline.

The tale of the Children of Lir is like the fairy tales that we heard when we were young. A beloved mother dies. A beloved father remarries. A wicked stepmother pretends love for the children but secretly plots their destruction. In this old Irish tale, Aifa (eefa) takes them to Lake Derravaragh (Derryvar’agh) where, using the magic staff of her husband, Lir, King of the Sea, she transforms them into swans.

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The spell will last for three times three hundred years. The swans will have to live in three different places until the dawn of the New Age sets them free. The woman must have had a small light in her dark heart, for she allows the swans to keep their human voices. She returns to the castle, telling Lir that his four beloved children, Fionnuala (fee-un-oo’la), Aedh (aid), Fiachra (fee’ach-ra) and Conn are dead. (music ends)

As the children try to adapt to their swan bodies, they comfort themselves by singing. Word begins to spread throughout the kingdom that the music of the swans can soothe away grief. The King goes to the lake, seeking comfort, and his swan children tell him what has transpired.

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Lir uses his magic staff to transform his Queen into a demon of the air. He himself moves to an encampment near the lake to be near his children. They have many happy years together until the spell unfolds the moment when the swans must go to another place.

They arrive at the Sea of Moyle which is cold and lonely. A fierce storm arises to scatter and nearly destroy them. Fionnuala arrives safely at the Rock of the Seals, but she fears her brothers are dead. She mourns for them. She sings her song of grief. Yet one by one, they return. The four are again together. A long time passes and the third of their destinations calls to them. They fly over their home, but see no sign of their father. On the deserted western shore, the swans settle into their third resting place, resigned to their fate, singing to console their hearts. Their music draws birds from all over Ireland.

Time passes. The Kairos moment arrives, the opening in the weaving of time to allow something new to happen. A holy hermit hears their song and responds with music of his own.

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The children sing with him in harmony as a pale golden light rises on the stage, appearing behind the two standing stones, carved with spirals and with the Ogham letters of the Irish alphabet. The bell of the New Age sounds even as a third stone drops to form an arch with the other two. The swan skins fall away, revealing four very old people. The hermit baptizes them, releasing them into freedom. Together they walk into the golden light. Transformation.

Though it ends in death, the Children of Lir is a birthing story. I know that I am watching a mythic tale of the beginnings of Christianity in Ireland. My soul recognizes its deep truth though it tells me nothing that might pass for history. The coming of Christianity was a promise fulfilled, a dawning whose power released from old binding spells.

That night in Tralee I fall in love once more with the promise. My quest has altered, subtly, importantly. Within me, as Yeats says, “a terrible beauty (is) born”. I know now that what I seek is not, as I had thought, to find a pure religion that existed here before Christianity, but rather to recover the beauty and passion and love that was at the heart of the early Christian faith in Ireland. I need to reclaim my own heritage.