Category Archives: Sacred Feminine

The Lure of Sophia

For several years, I have been seeking Sophia. Or I thought I had been. What I now understand is that Sophia/Wisdom has been seeking me, luring me under other names, other guises, leading me into a way of living that is a companionship more intimate than I could ever have desired or imagined. What joy to begin to recognize that this Presence of Wisdom, of Love, has somehow been both following my steps and leaping ahead to greet me as I arrive…

This is Sophia’s way. Through the ages she has walked with countless others whom we shall never know. Those who have recorded their experiences with Sophia have left us a priceless treasure, a template for what we can experience for ourselves. As Thomas Merton has done, they speak of the joy of knowing her intimate companioning:

When I go home, I shall take my ease with her, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her, there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy. (Wisdom 8: 16)

When my friend Ellyn told me that this year’s theme for the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky would be “Sacred Insight, Feminine Wisdom”, I was drawn to attend. For four days, we experienced Wisdom, a fountain of delight, shared by presenters, both men and women, from a wide spectrum of faith traditions.

Sophia’s is an embodied presence, within ourselves, within others. Through the days of the Festival her voice resounded, whispered, sang, laughed, spoke and taught in many accents, many keys, many cultures. From the moment when Hildegard of Bingen’s music  filled the Cathedral in Louisville with mystery and beauty, I knew that Sophia would be present within this gathering.

What was Hildegard’s experience of Sophia? Born just before the twelfth century, Hildegard wrote her brilliant theological treatise, “Scivias” in Latin, so in her writings Lady Wisdom is known as “Sapientia”. Mary T. Malone writes of Hildegard’s devotion to “Sapientia”:

Hildegard was fully aware of the biblical tradition stemming from Sophia, a female embodiment of God, which had been allowed to lapse from consciousness with the emphasis on the all-male metaphorical Trinity. For those of us in the Church of today, this is perhaps the most radical part of Hildegard’s teaching, but it occupies well near centre stage in her writings.

(Four Women Doctors of the Church Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2015, p.27)

For Hildegard, as for so many others among women mystics, a favourite biblical passage was the Book of Proverbs where Wisdom/ Sophia speaks:

Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.

Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust.

When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
— and the waters will not invade the shore —
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in the world…

The Jerusalem Bible: Proverbs 8:22-31

Feminine Wisdom embraces the sacredness of the earth and of the body. For Hildegard, this honouring of Sapientia would show itself in her wonderful teachings on “viriditas” or “greenness”.

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Malone writes:

Hildegard lived in the Rhine valley and writes with joy about the gardens and orchards of her monastery home. For her, the cycle of the seasons, especially the rising of the sap giving new life in springtime, was a primary metaphor of the spiritual life. Viriditas signified grace, the all-powerful presence of the Spirit….Hildegard saw aridity as the main sign of and metaphor for sin, and moistness and greenness as the principal sign of grace in our lives. We are told that she often concluded her letters with the words, ‘stay green and moist’, which for her meant openness to the Spirit of God. It is an approach to life that takes us right into the twenty-first century, with its emphasis on the environment and on God’s care for all Creation. Hildegard’s references to growing things, to clouds and rainfall and sunshine…are abundant throughout her work. As she worked to tend the sick in the monastery infirmary, Hildegard was intensely curious about the properties and powers of plants, stones and herbs….all part of the greening power of God’s Creation. (Malone, p. 28)

Hildegard’s music was a perfect beginning for the Festival which would have much to impart about “greenness” as an aspect of feminine wisdom.

 

Sophia and Thomas Merton

A mysterious presence introduces herself to us in the Hebrew Scriptures without revealing her name. In the Book of Proverbs, she tells us:

Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded,
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
….
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in the world…

Solomon speaks of this presence as “Wisdom”(Hebrew, “Chochma”, Greek, “Sophia”)

Although She is one,
She does all things.
Without leaving Herself
She renews all things.
Generation after generation She slips into holy souls
Making them friends of God, and prophets,
for God loves none more than they who dwell with Wisdom.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7: 27-28)

While in Louisville Kentucky attending the “Festival of Faiths” in late April, a visit to Thomas Merton’s Hermitage on the grounds the Abbey of Gethsemane, reawakened my fascination with this man whose writings reveal him to be poet and prophet, mystic and theologian.

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Thomas Merton’s Hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemane

Yet Merton remained an alluringly earth-bound human being, passionately engaged with the darkness and suffering of the 1960’s, seeking to create within his own being a wholeness between East and West, Christianity and other faiths, black and white, feminine and masculine aspects of God.

This latter aspect of his life and work was the greatest surprise of my re-enchantment with Merton. It arrived by way of a book: Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009)

Today I sat by the river to read the opening chapter of Pramuk’s book. When I began to write, I called this Reflection, “Thomas Merton and Sophia”. But that didn’t seem right. I changed it to “Sophia and Thomas Merton”. Already in Chapter One I had discovered that the initiative in the relationship came from Sophia who “slips into holy souls/ making them friends of God and prophets.”

So how did Sophia slip into Merton’s soul? Pramuk tells us it happened in the final decade of his life, before his sudden death in1968. Sophia came to him in dreams, and in a variety of human presences…

First, there was a dream (February 28, 1958) in which a young Jewish girl named “Proverb” came to embrace him….
She then came to him in the crossroads of a great city ( March 18, 1958)

Of this epiphany Merton would later write:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people. That they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien from one another even though we were total strangers…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Pramuk continues:
(Sophia) found him again in the burning woods near Gethsesmane (March 19, 1959), this time in the face of local farm children, “poor little Christs with…sweet, sweet voices.” Over a year later (July 2, 1960) on the Feast of the Visitation, she came in the guise of a nurse, whose gentle whispers awakened him one morning as he lay in the hospital.

Merton writes:
“… and it was like awakening for the first time from all the dreams of my life – as if the Blessed Virgin herself, as if Wisdom had awakened me. We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the feminine voice, the voice of the Mother: yet she speaks everywhere and in everything. Wisdom cries out in the market place — ‘If anyone is little, let him come to me’.”

Pramuk cites two passages in Merton’s Journal in the winter of 1965 that show his nearness to Sophia:
Merton wrote on his fiftieth birthday, January 31, 1965… from Wisdom 8:16: …”When I go home, I shall take my ease with her, for nothing is bitter in her company, when life is shared with her there is no pain, nothing but pleasure and joy.” Though he complains of suffering bitterly from the “fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero,” he expresses joy in the fact that “I woke up in a hermitage!” Then hearkening to the Wisdom text, Merton wonders: “But what more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom?’ For me this is nothing else…”

(February 4, 1965) “Last night I had a curious and moving dream about a “Black Mother.” I was in a place (where? Somewhere I had been as a child…) and I realized that I had come there for a reunion with a Negro foster mother whom I had loved in my childhood. Indeed, I owed, it seemed, my life to her love so that it was she really, and not my natural mother, who had given me life. As if from her hand had come a new life and there she was. Her face was ugly and severe, yet great warmth came from her to me, and we embraced with great love (and I with much gratitude). What I recognized was not her face but the warmth of her embrace and of her heart, so to speak. We danced a little together, I and my Black Mother, and then I had to continue the journey I was on…”

Pramuk comments that what Merton recognized in this dream was the same “presence”, he was striving to recognize in everyone: the warmth of her embrace and of her heart.

… (O)ne of the most striking themes in all these encounters is Merton’s experience of himself as the object of Wisdom’s attention. Her embrace is transitive… breaking in “from her to me,” yet coming in the form of this concrete person or thing before him right now: the flight of an escaping dove, a lone deer feeding among the trees outside the hermitage, the faces of passersby on a busy street corner. For she is “playing in the world, obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator.” (Pramuk: pp.13-16)

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Thomas Merton and Sophia

While in Louisville Kentucky to attend the “Festival of Faiths” in late April, I had the good fortune to visit the Hermitage in the woods near the Abbey of Gethsemane where  Thomas Merton ( Father Louis) would go for times of solitude and prayer, nature walks and contemplation which nourished his soul and inspired his writings on Spirituality and Justice.

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Thomas Merton’ s Hermitage in the woods near the Monastery of Gethsemane, Kentucky

Though I knew of Merton’s life and writings, of his fierce cries for Social Justice, his passionate opposition to the Vietnam War, while visiting Gethsemane I learned of a poignant footnote to his life. In December of 1968, Merton had been on a pilgrimage, his quest to integrate insights of both Western and Eastern religious thought. While attending a monastic conference in Bangkok Thailand, Merton died suddenly. His body was transported home to the US in a plane carrying soldiers who had died in the Vietnam war.

But I was to learn something that was of immense importance to my own quest for the Sacred Feminine Presence: Merton had written compellingly of Sophia. I brought home from the Festival of Faiths Christopher Pramuk’s book: Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2009)

Pramuk tells of a visit made by Merton to an artist friend, Victor Hammer, in nearby Lexington. Hammer was working on a triptych with a  central panel showing the boy Christ being crowned by a dark-haired woman. When Merton asked his friend who the woman was, the artist replied that he did not yet know. Merton said, “She is Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ.”

At Hammer’s request, Merton expanded on this insight in a letter written May 14, 1959:

The first thing to be said, of course, is that Hagia Sophia is God Himself. God is not only a Father but a Mother….(T)o ignore this distinction is to lose touch with the fullness of God. This is a very ancient intuition of  reality which goes back to the oldest Oriental thought…. for the “masculine-feminine” relationship is basic to all reality — simply because all reality mirrors the reality of God.

Pramuk continues to quote from this letter where he senses Merton writing in a stream of consciousness as though his friend’s question had opened ” a kind of conceptual and imaginative floodgate”:

Over the next five or six paragraphs, he identifies Sophia as “the dark, nameless Ousia (Being)” of God, not one of the Three Divine Persons, but each “at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her.”  She is “the Tao,the nameless pivot of all being and nature …that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble in all.” She is “the ‘feminine child’ playing before Him at all times, playing in the world.’ (Proverbs 8) ”  Above all, Sophia is unfathomable mercy, made manifest in the world by means of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   

Merton identifies Sophia as God’s love and mercy coming to birth in us.”In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness, He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself, ordained for this by the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin) ( the crowning in your picture), and if we receive the humility of God in our hearts, we become able to accept and embrace and love this very poverty which is Himself and His Sophia.” 

(Christopher Pramuk : Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton pp.193-4. Quotes from Merton are from“Witness to Freedom”: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, ed. William H. Shannon ( New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995)  

In 1962, six years before his death, Merton composed a poem to “Hagia Sophia/ Holy Wisdom” in the form of the Monastic Office, a  Prayer recited in Community to mark the times of day: Dawn: The Hour of Lauds; Early Morning : The Hour of Prime; High Morning; The Hour of Tierce; Sunset: The Hour of Compline.

Here is how Merton’s  Prayer at Dawn begins:

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness  and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.  

I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.

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Icon of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, in Merton’s Hermitage Chapel

Waiting in Darkness

 

The ancient ritual of the Easter Vigil lures me after an absence of several years. The parish church doors open to invite us into the Phrygian darkness of night. We stand scrunched together at the back, among friends whose faces we cannot see, whose voices we do not hear. Then comes the flaring forth of vermilion flame as the Easter fire is birthed from flint. It could be the flaring forth of light at the dawn of this Universe, the primordial moment that the physicists cannot yet grasp.

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The priest uses the new fire to light the great Paschal Candle which stands taller than he does. He intones the ancient chant: three notes rising: “Christ our Light.” From the single flame, the candles held by all who have gathered this night bloom with yellow light, creating a halo that reveals each face. “Christ our Light”.

A cantor sings the “Exultet” the Hymn of Praise to the Risen Christ, echoing the words of Paul: “What good would life have been to us if Christ had not risen?”

Seven Readings follow from the Hebrew Scriptures, telling the old, old tales….

And this is where I begin to feel discomfort. I who love stories, the older the better, find myself rejecting the Genesis account of creation. Once I could overlook its scientific inaccuracies, defend them to others as poetry, not truth. But tonight I am comparing this account with the enchantment of the 13.8 billion year story of the unfolding, evolving, unfinished Universe.

I feel something like revulsion for this strange god who creates man in his own image, adding a woman only for the man’s sake, an after-thought, giving these latecomers dominion over all of life on our planet while forbidding them to eat the fruit of the tree that would give them wisdom.

Finally, pleased with himself, this god decides to take a day off.

When we meet him in the next reading, this god is asking Abraham to make a blood sacrifice of his only son. After the agony he puts the father through (no mention of Sarah, the mother), he says, “I was only testing you…”

As Moses and his people are fleeing from Egypt, this god “covers himself in glory” by drowning a people who were among the wisest who ever lived….

Who is this god?
I do not know him.

Joseph Campbell writes of him as a “local desert god”, a “thunder-hurler”. 1

Indo-European deities encountering warrior gods tended to have their goddesses marry the male gods. Campbell notes that this did not happen among the Semites who ruthlessly obliterated the local goddesses. He points out that a religious tradition with a father god but no mother god is one where we are separate from God, where God is separate from us, from nature. This is a God who is “out there” rather than within us. To find this God we need religious structures, laws, authorities. We are separated from nature, distrusting, even despising our own bodies. Beauty is itself suspect, a distraction, a seduction.

Still in the candle-lit darkness, I am working myself into a state of high dudgeon, wondering why I came, when the tone of the readings alters.

I begin to hear words of undeniable tenderness. I remember why for so many years my favourite biblical passages were the Hebrew prophets who knew, must have experienced, a Presence of Divine Love, what Julian of Norwich calls a Mothering God.

Isaiah invites all who thirst to come to the waters, to come without need of money for what the heart desires…

Hosea’s voice calls back from the desert an abandoned, heartbroken lover.

The seventh reading from the Hebrew Scriptures begins, one I do not recognize, do not remember having heard before.

I listen to words that tell of a presence who guides, who brings light and joy, when we follow… HER.
What is this?
It is the writing of the prophet Baruch.

Later, at home, I find the passage in my Jerusalem Bible:

Listen, Israel, to commands that bring life;
Hear and learn what knowledge means.
…….
Learn where knowledge is, where strength,
where understanding, and so learn
where length of days is, where life,
where the light of the eyes and where peace.
But who has found out where she lives,
Who has entered her treasure house?
…..
Who has ever climbed the sky and caught her
To bring her down from the clouds?
Who has ever crossed the ocean and found her
To gain her back in exchange for the finest gold?
No one knows the way to her,
No one can discover the path she treads.
But the One who knows all knows her… 2

 

And now we are hearing Paul’s words of promise, of hope, of assurance of our own Resurrection: Paul who never met the earthbound Jesus, who was hurled from his horse when the Risen Christ called his name, who fell in love with the Unseen One and spent the rest of his life carrying his message to others, who did not disdain to tell them he was in labour until Christ was born in them.

Suddenly the dark is rent by an eruption of light everywhere, flowers making a garden of the sanctuary, bells ringing. Two clear soprano voices lift in a duet sung in the pure tones of angels, “He is Risen. He is Risen.”

After the Celebration of the Easter Eucharist, I greet my friends, set off in the rain for home, awash in questions…. slowly I let them settle in me.

I remember Teilhard’s understanding that we live in an unfinished universe. We each have a part to play in bringing it nearer to completion. I recommit to my calling to invite others to join me in providing a space, a place, for the Sacred Feminine to dwell, embodied within us.

References:

1. Joseph Campbell Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (New World Library, Novato, California, 2013) p.xxii and pp. 86-87

2. Baruch 3: 9, 14, 15, 29-32

 

Seeking the Woman-God

Where do you go looking when your soul longs for a Mothering God? Do you find her in poetry? ancient stories? In songs or rituals or art work or sacred dance? Do you look for wise and loving women who embody her? Do you seek her in your own wise and yearning heart? Or would you go out to explore the earth around you, seeking her in the beauty of spring flowers, in the grace of a flowing stream, in the tender presence of young birds in a nest? Would you look in wild places where the sea explodes into the rock face, pummels the cliffs, shapes stone into forms that resemble an ancient wise woman, a cailleach….

 

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Atlantic Ocean greets cliffs of Dun Aengus on Inis M’or

Six weeks after my return from the Brigid of Faughart Festival in Ireland, I am still processing the insights, inspiration and experiences of those days. It is not surprising that what I found was sourced in the lives, the words, the stories, songs and poetry of the women I met there. The Sacred Feminine is an embodied presence. Yet of all that I learned, the thing that stirs me most was the way that women spoke of seeking, finding and being found by the Sacred Feminine in the land: in her sea and shore, her grass and trees, her wells and rivers, her mountains and ancient stones, her golden light and eerie darkness, her wild winds and gentle rains. I am captivated by this new understanding.

To honour the feminine presence, Wisdom Sophia, is to honour the planet which embodies her. From earliest days, from the time even before the arrival of the Celts, the people of Ireland honoured the goddess, whose ancient names include Aine or Anu. She was the one whose eyes held the light of the stars, whose hair rippled like the corn, flowed like the waves of the sea, whose body was the great earth barrows, her breasts the hills, called “the Paps of Anu”.

Before this recent visit to Ireland, I had thought these descriptors were lovely metaphors, a poetic honouring of the sacred presence. Yet on this journey I met women for whom the land, the sea, the rocks and rivers somehow embodied the goddess herself. This is not pantheism, making gods of nature, but rather panentheism, recognizing that the holy is present within all that lives, as Teilhard de Chardin taught.

Snowbound for days in this never-ending winter, I sat by the fire reading Kate Fitzpatrick’s book. Kate spoke during the Brigid Festival of her years of work through workshops, story-telling and powerful shamanic healing rituals, to help bring about peace in Northern Ireland. Her guide, counsellor and co-creative partner in this was Macha, the mythical Ulster Goddess.

In her book (Macha’s Twins: A Spiritual Journey with the Celtic Horse Goddess, Immram Publishing, Inishowen, Donegal, Ireland 2017) Kate describes encounters with Macha, mediated by the land and sea. While living on the island of Inis M’or off the west coast of Ireland near Galway, Kate writes:

I am exhilarated with the vital power of this island. The shifting clouds, the showers of rain. What I love about it is the changing light in each hour of the day. The land is bleak and barren. Yet the play of light makes it so beautiful.

I begin to see that Macha is the Wild Mother here. Every day in the raw vitality of wind and rain and sea I find her. Like her wild spirit, all here is dynamic and powerful. Restless and free. Seeping right in to my bones. I move through autumn and winter beckoned by this force. Every day I see more of the power of the feminine in the sea, the waves, and the rock. (p. 67)

 

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Dun Aengus Inis M’or

In the years that follow, Kate experiences a call to return home to Northern Ireland, to assist the Sacred Feminine presence in the work of bringing healing and peace to the soul of Ulster.

By early June, it is becoming clear to me that the rocks, trees, stones and rivers, along with the elements and the sheer beauty of this glen, have, together, become an alchemical vessel to hold a wider healing of the soul of Ulster.
The sea, as I look out at it this morning, is playing its part in the offering of light, the blue of its holding, the high vibration of its silver water, the wildness of its dance. There is a fierce power of transformation in the rolling waves.(p. 169)

Knowing Macha’s presence with her, Kate writes:

I breathe deeply as she shows me pictures of the town in County Antrim where I grew up in the 1960’s. ‘There are many towns in the North that need healing,’ Macha tells me. ‘This is a journey to bring the heart home, to bring back the kindness lost to everyone in the shadows of war. For you, Daughter, concern yourself only with this.’ (p.169)

Kate’s work with the support of other women led to a tangible presence of light and peace in the land. Two decades after her time on Inis Mo’r, Kate knew that “the old patterns are going now and light is coming in, bringing forgiveness, beauty and joy”.

Then she describes this experience:
I sense a presence in the middle of the strand and when I look over, I see Macha walking in the shallow waters of puddles left on the sand. I see her bend down to pick up shells. As I walk towards her, she looks up, sees me and smiles….I sigh a deep breath and run towards her, power seeping into me from the very sand itself. As I approach her, she straightens up and, still holding the shells, opens her arms to welcome me. Her holding is of the ages. In the warmth and strength of her embrace, I weep.(pp. 237-8)

Macha’s Twins is available for online sales in Ireland, Europe, USA and and internationally.
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Brigid: Cailleach, Midwife to a New World

Part Three  by Dolores Whelan

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. 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.”

 

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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 in individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all of 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 courageously and safely to 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. So we ask for

The mantle of Brigid about us
The memory of Brigid within us
The protection of Brigid keeping us from harm from ignorance,
from heartlessness this day from dawn till dark (4)

When we embrace her energy Brigid will hold us and guide us through this transition. I believe she is the one who has the power to awaken in each of us An eye to see what is, the heart that feels what is, and the courage that dares to follow. (5)

1 Amergin Jan de Fouw Amergin Wolfhound Press Dublin 2000 ( afterword ) no page number
2 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147
3 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147
4 Poem source unknown
5 Celtic triad found extensively in the literature

 

 

 

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.

20180126snow drops in Ireland

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.

 

20180201Faughart Oratory

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)