What is it about early January and especially the Feast of the Epiphany that sends us into the heart of our lives with questions? What is my deepest desire for this New Year? What star am I to follow? How can I, like Brigid of Kildare, FOCUS on what matters most? And this year a new question rises with urgency: While the Corona Virus continues to bring suffering and death, how may my life offer compassion and light to others in the midst of planetary darkness?
Even in lockdown, even in these times when we are limited in our contacts, the primary commitments of our lives remain. Yet that are as well so many paths opening for our engagement: a multitude of ZOOM courses, summits, gatherings, many with a spiritual focus…If you find it bewildering, you are not alone.
When the snowfall on New Year’s night finally created a white wonderland around my home, I paced out a snow labyrinth, rudimentary, with three intersecting spirals. I walked it, holding my confusion, asking, “What am I to do? How am I to choose among so many activities? Where shall I focus my energy? What is most important in my life?
When I reached the heart centre of the labyrinth, I stood listening, still unsure, but as I walked out an answer arose, so simple I might have dismissed it… the labyrinth itself showed me. Choose from your heart centre. What do you love most?
Suddenly it was easy. Inside, I drew a labyrinth with three spirals: in each one I printed one of the tasks of my life that I do out of love.
These three involvements will shape my days, have already begun to do so.
And so we take up our task once more. We sit down at our looms and choose the coloured yarns for the weaving of a spirituality for our time. We know what we are about, our hands are strong, supple, as we select the shades, the textures, the combinations that harmonize best. We include the dark threads as well as the golden, the soft fibres as well as the tough. We know this weaving requires it all… the warm rose madder of love, that stretches across the universe for three trillion miles in a NASA photograph… the gold of wisdom, polished to glowing through times of suffering and loss… the deep purple threads that remind us that 96% of the universe , including ourselves, dwells in darkness… invisible threads of beauty wind themselves into the spaces between the weaving: music, song, dance, poetry, stories, the threads of the relationships that give meaning to our lives… and our weaver’s shuttle moves with ease between ancient wisdom, and the edges of mystic knowings of today’s physicists.
As the ancient weavers worked at their looms, they created and shared stories that wove meaning through their lives. The fragments of these tales that still remain reveal their ways of knowing… their understandings of love, of wisdom, of darkness, of suffering. Listening to these tales while we do our own weaving lends enchantment, as well as clarity.
Here is an old Scottish tale: “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh.” It is a story that never fails to inspire me anew to commit my life to what matters most.
By the fireside of an ancient gypsy woman, there sits a young woman, barely twenty. Exhaustion and grief have bowed her, stolen light from her lovely sea-green eyes. For weeks, she has been wandering the moors, knocking on every croft door, walking through towns, seeking everywhere for her small son. His father is dead. The little boy is all she has left in the world and she loves him desperately. This gypsy woman, known for her deep wisdom, is her last hope.
The old woman stands, takes a handful of dried herbs from a cauldron at her side, throws them on the fire. After studying the dim patterns of smoke, she reaches for the young woman’s hand, and holding it between her two gnarled ones, she speaks gently: “Prepare yourself for great sorrow. Your child has been taken by the Sidh, the fairy folk of Ireland, into their Sidhean. What goes into the Sidhean seldom emerges.”
The young woman begins to weep. “I may as well die, for without my child, I have nothing to live for.”
“Do not despair. I see one hope. The Sidh have a great love of beautiful things; yet, for all their cleverness, they are unable to create anything, so must either steal or bargain for what they desire. If you could find an object of immense beauty, you might be able to bargain with them to regain your son.”
“But how shall I get inside their Sidhean?” the woman asked.
“Ah,” said the gypsy. “You shall need a second thing of great beauty to bargain your way inside.”
Then the gypsy woman gave her directions to find the Sidhean, blessing her with a protection against harm by fire, air, water and earth. The young woman slept deeply that night. When she wakened, the old Gypsy woman and all her people were gone, and the place of encampment was an empty field.
The young woman drank water from a sweet stream, ate some bread given her by the gypsies. Then she lay in the grass and wept. How could she do this impossible thing that was asked of her? After a time, the flow of tears dried, and a light wakened within her. She thought: “ I shall need not one but two things of incomparable beauty.” She set her mind to remembering all the lovely things she had heard about. Of all, she chose two: the white cloak of Nechtan, and the golden harp of Wrad.
With sudden clarity, she knew what she must do. She stood, began walking towards the sea.
She clambered among the rocks at the shore, gathering the down left by the ducks. And the blessing of the gypsy protected her from harm by the waves, the wind, the sun’s fire and the sharp rocks.
She sat on a large stone to weave the down into a cloak. She cut a strand of her her hair with a sharp rock. With it she wove a pattern of fruits, flowers and vines through the hem. The cloak was so beautiful it might have been a white cloud fallen from the sky. She hid the cloak behind a gorse bush, then walked the shoreline until she found a frame for her harp, a fish bone just the right size and and shape. With strands of her hair, she made the strings fast to the frame, then tightened and tuned them. The sound of the melody she played was so lovely that the birds of the air paused in mid-flight to listen.
She placed the cloak around her, and carrying her harp, set out for the Sidhean.
A Sidh woman, arriving late, rushing towards the opening in the hill, saw her. Mouth agape, eyes burning with greed, the fairy gazed at the cloak. A bargain was struck. The fairy woman allowed her to enter in exchange for the cloak. The other Sidh folk were so enthralled by the cloak the fairy woman wore that they did not notice as the young woman walked into the throne room and began to play her harp before the King. The king’s eyes grew wide in amazement, then narrow in greed.
“I have many harps ,” said the King, pretending disinterest, “but I have a mind to add that to my collection. What will you take in exchange for it? ”
The young woman said “Give me the human child you have here.”
The King whispered to his servants who brought a great caulron of jewels, which they poured at her feet. But she would not look. “Only the child,” she said. The servants came a second time with a cauldron of gold pieces. Again she did not look, but played on her harp a tune of such love and longing that the King was overcome.
The servants were sent out and returned carrying the child. When he saw his mother, he gurgled with delight, and stretched out his arms to her. Letting the harp be taken from her, she lifted her arms to receive him. Then she walked with him out of the Sidhean.
How does this story speak to your own life? What is for you the one thing for which you would give all?
The woman created what she needed, two things of incomparable beauty, using what the seashore offered, and even her own hair… how do we create what is needed from the substance of our lives?