Category Archives: Covid 19 and the Web of Life

The Morning After the Dark night of the soul

As we prepare to emerge from the darkness of COVID, these teachings from Jean Houston offer guidance.

October 21-23, 2016: Jean Houston is to facilitate a program entitled, “The Morning after the Dark Night of the Soul”. Early on Friday morning, I set out for the eleven hour drive to the Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts. The way takes me through mountains softened through millennia to rounded hills. Trees wear autumn colours so achingly beautiful that I want to stop the car, to embrace them. The narrow road curves, dips, climbs. Quite suddenly a sharp hairpin turn opens to a space to park, to take photos…


Full darkness has descended when the car’s headlights pick up the small wooden sign: “The Rowe Center”. Over a narrow bridge that spans a swift-flowing brook, I enter the grounds. In the central farmhouse, a dinner of eggplant parmesan, fresh-baked bread, vegetables, salads and apple crisp awaits.

In a great circle that embraces the dining tables, I join fifty others as we sing a blessing, “Simple Gifts”.

The words pierce through my dazed fatigue, startling me into joy: “To turn, to turn, will be our delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.” I know my coming here is the grace for which I’ve been yearning. Before setting out, I’d written my desire: to be spun around, turned to face a new direction….. 

After dinner, we walk from the farmhouse along the path that climbs through the woods to the building that holds the meeting room.

Jean Houston welcomes us, assuring us that, “in the dark night, an enormous gift awaits you.” The music begins. We dance our way into a weekend of teachings, processes, insights, profound inner experiences, one on one conversations   spinning our lives into joy.

Jean Houston: “In the dark night an enormous gift awaits you.”

Using as loom the stages of the mystical path as described by Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism, 1911) Jean weaves together the present darkness of our planet, our personal lives, with the light that sustains the Universe, holding each of us in a fabric of beauty. We’re immersed for a time, brief, endless, in the heart of the spirituality that we’ve been longing to experience, to embrace.

Part of the dark night today, Jean tells us, is way beyond the personal self: this catharsis of refugees, war, weather, the breakdown of systems is “a ritual of initiation that life gives us to deepen”.

Jean turns to Connie Buffalo, her working partner, a member of the Anishnabe/Ojibway People, “How do your people deal with the dark night?”

“We walk in two worlds,” Connie responds. “We know ourselves as timeless beings, called to become more for the good of all people.”

“Mythologize the dark night. Don’t pathologize it.” Jean is introducing the theme when an urgent question from a participant requires a shift:

“What are we to do about the violence, the racism now erupting in our country?”

“The way is love,” Jean responds. “Be there and love. Drop down into the center. Let the facts fall away. Speak essence to essence. (In) very deep seeing, you see the levels of beingness in the person that are not normally seen. Practise going off automatic and into the essence.”

We learn about the practice of deep seeing, first by watching as Jean engages with volunteers from among us, then by working with one another in pairs.

Jean begins by asking the first volunteer to speak of a quality she dislikes in herself. “People say I’m a know-it-all,” the woman responds. Jean invites her to      step back a bit, to shake her body, loosening the posture of protection.

In the silence, Jean looks at her. “You are a pattern-keeper,” Jean says to the woman, explaining that one who sees and knows the higher pattern calls others to honour it in their behaviour.

The women nods, smiles, walks back to her place as one who has received a gift, one who sees that her darkness has light within it.

Jean explains that we have within us a “daemon”: our essential self. This daemon  keeps us in a state of negative life, a darkness, until the inner self has become strong enough to be seen in its fulness. Winston Churchill stuttered when he was young; his voice was protected by his daemon until it would be needed to save Britain. “The daemon protects you until you’re ready.”

Seeing deeply requires us to drop our ego, to focus on the other, Jean says, inviting us to experience this process of deep empathic seeing, working with a partner, someone we don’t know in the room. I’m surprised at the way this process opens my eyes to see the beauty and light in a stranger, the way it shows me the light beneath my own darkness.

Sunrise : “Look deeply to discover what’s trying to emerge”

“We’re looking at the other side of the dark night,” Jean says. “Look deeply to discover what’s trying to emerge.”

In the dark night of the soul, Jean explains, ordinary life shuts down so that deep life can reconstitute itself. If you could see it, it couldn’t happen. It’s like the caterpillar within the cocoon. Its cells turn into a moosh, a soup, until the new imaginal cells combine, become strong enough to emerge as a butterfly.

On the drive back, I know I’ve returned to the deep self once more. I’ve been spun around by my friend and teacher Jean to face into the firelight, into the joy. When I step out of the car beside my home, the stars above me are dancing with delight.

Where and how do you find light in the present darkness on our planet?

What emerging butterfly will we see after this dark night?

What do you see now?

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.”







Sophia and the Web of Life

So much has altered since Covid 19 became a pandemic. The interconnectedness of all of life has moved from being a concept to becoming a lived experience. Though fraught with anxiety, our new reality is making way for an unprecedented coming together in co-operation across boundaries both geographic and political.  Many stories across the planet indicate that we are experiencing what may soon be a pandemic of generosity and kindness…

More surprising is the already visible effect on our wounded planet. Photos from space show a clearing in earth’s atmosphere, particularly above northern Italy. Astounded Venetians see fish, dolphins, white swans swimming in suddenly clear canal water. Bird song is being heard in Wuhan, China, in air cleansed of dense pollution.

Mother Earth Healing

Seeds of new relationships of respect and love between humans and other forms of life have been nurtured over decades by those who have been writing, teaching, and inviting a new relationship with the earth, with all that lives within, on and around her. It was the feminist theologians, writing in the last third of the twentieth century, who used their powerful intellects, their theological training, and their own experience to show that the “objective” masculine theological teachings, thought to apply to all humankind, actually reflected the masculine way to God.

The feminist theologians found the heart of the difference between the masculine and feminine ways to be within the perceived dualities found in Greek thought: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman. More than a separation, there found a perceived hierarchy. Spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman.

This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the human.

Through the writings of the feminist theologians, we learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the earth, of the body, of feelings, of sexuality.

At this time in the story of our planet Earth, this recovery is vital. The sacred presence of love lives within all of life, within the earth herself, within the creatures that walk, swim, fly, crawl upon and within her. Only this knowing can give us the courage and the strength we need for the work we are called to do with the earth as she heals from the ravages of our despoiling of her.

In the sixth chapter of her book, The Web of Life, thealogian Carol Christ writes compellingly of this call: To know ourselves as of this earth is to know our deep connection to all people and beings. All beings are interdependent in the web of life….We feel deeply within ourselves that we are part of all that is, but we must learn to speak of what we know. We know, too, that we participate fully in the earth’s cycles of birth, death, and regeneration…. The fundamental insight of connection to all beings in the web of life is experienced by children, poets, mystics, and indeed, I suspect, by all of us, though we may lack the language to express what we feel….(p. 113)

 Acknowledging the difficulty of speaking of this deep connection “in the face of criticism rooted in dualistic thinking”, Christ quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote of his “I-Thou” relation to a tree:

I contemplate a tree.

2020-02-01 tree at IONS on Brigid's Day

I can accept it as a picture: as rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  

(Martin Buber, I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1970 pp. 58-59)

 In the writings of Susan Griffin we find a recognition of “This Earth” as intelligent and aware: I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst. In drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster. (Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her New York, Harper and Row, 1978 p. 219)  

A beautiful reweaving of dualities into wholeness flows from our embrace of Sophia. Once we take our first turning towards a Sacred Feminine Presence, welcoming her into our lives, change begins. In Rebirth of the Goddess (1997), Carol P. Christ writes of how turning towards the presence she names the Goddess altered her life.

If Goddess is an intelligent power that is fully embodied in the world, then the notion that divinity, nature and humanity are three totally distinct categories collapses. If Goddess as fully embodied intelligent love is the ground of all being, then it makes sense to speak of intelligence and love as rising out of the very nature of being and of all beings as intelligent and infused with love. Human intelligence and our capacity to love do not separate us from nature. Instead, everything we are arises from the nature of being, from our grounding in the earth. (p. 123)

Today’s poets and writers are expressing these thoughts in the midst of our new reality. Kitty O’Meara expresses the hope we hold in the grip of uncertainty, suffering and grief:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed”    ~Kitty O’Meara