Category Archives: Sacred Feminine

Who Is Skeleton Woman ?

Since hearing the story of Skeleton Woman we have been sitting in silence: you, me and the Storyteller. Now she breaks the silence, turns to me and asks, Do you remember how you first understood this story? How you invited others to understand it?

I feel a rush of embarrassment, remembering a time when I thought that any story must and ought and should be understood in the light of the Jesus story, the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection. I have learned since that the Jesus story is powerful for us because it is part of a more ancient story-well: Isis and Osiris, Inanna, Demeter and Persephone, stories that were at the heart of the ancient world’s mystery schools, especially in Egypt and in Greece. These ancient stories are in their own way a retelling of the oldest story we know: the story of the life/death/life of our planet earth, birthed from the life/death/life and exploding star.

Do you remember? she asks me again, mischief shining in her dark eyes, a smile softening the contours of her face. I see that she wants me to recall the moment when this story opened out for me, offering unimagined possibilities.

‘Yes, I remember,” I tell her now. “It was many years ago when I was just beginning my work in spiritual teaching. I had discovered that the ancient stories held wisdom and symbols that shed light on our relationship with the Holy. When I reflected on this story, absorbing the deep teachings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I saw myself in Skeleton Woman, in her bones, in her thirst, in her desire for love. So I cast in the role of the fisherman the best love of my life, the compassionate, untangling, tender Jesus.

“I cannot remember how many times I’d worked with the story in this way, always inviting people to see how Jesus comes into our lives to untangle us, to give us new life through his heart of flesh.

“One evening I was with a group of women and men in a parish in Southern Ontario. Though they had been a challenging group to begin with, on this, our third evening, I noticed a difference in the energy. As they were sharing their reflections on the story of Skeleton Woman in small groups, using the guiding questions I’d given them, I noticed hands gesticulating, heads shaking, nodding, the volume of voices rising, rising, especially in one group.

“I was elated. This is good, I thought. Now they are really connecting with the story.

“I invited their comments, their responses, asking my usual question, Who is God in this story?

Well, the speaker from one group began, I guess God is the fisherman. He went on to say why, prompted by my leading questions.

No, said a woman’s voice. As she stood, I saw with alarm the fire of debate in her eyes. God cannot be the fisherman in this story. God would never run from us in fear.

“It was her group that had been engaging in fierce discussion. I saw their heads nodding now in agreement as she spoke.

“Then something wonderful happened inside me. I understood!

You are right, I told her. For you have tested the story’s teaching against the truth of your own experience. And your experience tells you that the Holy One would never run from us. So, where is God in this story?

“As I waited for her response, I felt as though I’d just leapt from a plane, my parachute not yet open. I had no idea what the answer might be….

The Holy One is Skeleton Woman, the woman said. She went on to show brilliantly how the Holy One enters our life, invites our engagement with her, drinks our tears, takes her very flesh from our beating hearts, and finally becomes one with us, body to body, flesh to flesh, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.

“That woman, I learned later, was a feminist theologian. It was my first close encounter with a member of the species.

“Since that night, I have studied the writings of feminist theologians. On a few rare occasions, I have heard them teach, or give public lectures. I have grown in awe and appreciation of these women who, beginning in the last third of the twentieth century, applied their brilliant, trained intellects, their powerful intelligence, their embodied knowing, to the pursuit of God.

“As the woman who spoke that night did, the feminist theologians use their own experience as the fish gut to seek out the Holy, waiting, watching, in the deep waters of their own lives, as well as in the waters of Scripture and Tradition. They do not merely travel the sea of theology in a kayak. They plumb its depths. With fierce intelligence, with skills honed through years of work, they separate out the crustaceans that have clung to the ivory teeth of truth; they sort through the imbalances, the errors that have accumulated over centuries of masculine-only embellishments, masculine-only experience, masculine-only perceptions.

“I found that the feminine aspect of the Holy had been hurled from the cliffs of patriarchy, had been left abandoned at the bottom of the sea. Now, in the fullness of time, She is being fished out by our need of Her, our hunger for Her, for all that She represents.

“I learned that Sophia, the personification of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the feminine principle of God. More startlingly, I learned that Jesus may himself be the masculine embodiment of that feminine principle.”

I stop speaking, aware I have been waxing on.

The Storyteller smiles. Let’s take some time to think of this, she says.

On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

tara-at-dusk-95486_207x136

The Hill of Tara at  Dusk

In our earlier session we arrived together in the Well of the Storyteller on Tara Hill. She is about to tell us an ancient tale of desire and longing, but first she invites us to settle in:

Lean back against the rock wall. Let it embrace you, body and spirit. Close your eyes. Relax all tension in your body. Breathe deeply. Now, I shall begin.

It is twilight on the moors as the eastern sky inhales, drawing away the day’s light, leaving a trail of rose madder and lavender on the sides of the far hills. Two of the Irish faery folk, the Sidh, now long vanished from our Isle, are walking along the path that skirts the cliff at the sea’s edge. One of them spies something ahead of her on the path and her greedy eyes glisten with the hope of gain. A bundle of clothes—perhaps finery—dropped by a traveller? She reaches down, her grasping fingers surprised by the weight. She opens the bundle, and cries out, “a bairn, a human bairn!”

The Sidh women look at one another, instantly united in one wicked resolve. “What no one is claimin’ is ours for the takin’.”

They hurry off, heedless of the cries of the baby now clutched to the finder’s thin breasts.

Almost all light has vanished as a coracle passes directly beneath the spot where the theft has just occurred. Michael and Niall are tired from their day’s fishing in the next cove, eager to be home to their families, their firesides, with the day’s catch. Niall plies the oars in the small boat, but it is Michael in the bow who spots the dark shape halfway up the side of the cliff. “Look up there, Niall. Is that someone trapped on the shelf – there, part way up the cliff?”

But Niall is weary, would rather not know, “Sure, ‘tis only a shadow, Michael. Or perhaps an animal resting.”

“Niall, how could we be sure ‘tis not some poor soul, fallen from the cliff above and injured? And how could we be going home to our own firesides, leaving someone there. Row to shore!”

Reluctantly, Niall turns the coracle towards the rocky cove and the bit of dry land that passes for shore. They secure the boat, scrabble their careful way up the cliff face, reaching for secure hand-holds, testing their weight on each jutting ledge with a tentative foot. When they reach the wide ledge where they’d spotted the shapes, they find a woman.

“Is she dead, Michael?” Niall’s whisper is filled with dread.

“No, but fainted or perhaps knocked unconscious by her fall. Here, take my cloak. Help me wrap her for the trip down to the boat.”

With tenderness, the two men make their careful way downwards, lay the still-unconscious woman in the bottom of their coracle. By the time they reach the cove near their own village, full darkness has risen to extinguish all outer light. The woman has not stirred.

Guided by the firelight that shines through the open window of Michael’s croft, they make their way to the door where Michael’s wife Elspeth, in one swift movement, lifts the woman into her arms and places her gently on the hearth rug beside the fire. “Quick, Michael, ladle some soup from the cauldron above the fire. Try to get her to swallow a little of it.”

The heat of the fire and the few drops of hot soup bring the woman to full wakefulness. She looks at Michael and his wife, and then around the small room as her eyes widen in terror. “My bairn! Where is my wee bairn?”

Elspeth looks at her husband. He shakes his head. “Prepare yourself for great sorrow,” she says to the younger woman. “There was no bairn with you when my husband and his friend found you.”

“You’d fallen from the cliff above,” Michael adds. “You might have died.”

But the young woman takes no comfort in her own survival. “My baby! He is all I have, for his father is dead. I placed him beside a gorse bush on the path, and went to find water for us both.” And already she has begun to stand as she says, “I must go to find him.”

Michael places a firm hand on her shoulder, preventing her from rising. “You’ll find nothing in this black night. Rest now, and at first light, Niall and I will call the men of village together to organize a proper search. We’ll walk back along the road that meets the cliff path. We’ll find your bairn. Never fear.”

But when he sees the anguish on the woman’s face, Michael reads her thought. How could a bairn survive alone at night? There are animals…

“I’ll get Niall and two lanterns. We’ll go now.”

Elspeth gives the woman more soup, laced with something to make her sleep, murmuring assurances that soon she’ll be holding her baby in her arms. But Elspeth hears another song deep in her own heart, a song of dread, of grief.

to be continued……

Brigid Cailleach, Midwife to A new World

The crone or “cailleach” is an important part of the ancient Celtic tradition. With her blessing, today’s blog features excerpts from an article written by the great Celtic scholar Dolores Whelan (www.doloreswhelan.ie)

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New Worldmaiden_mother_crone_jpg_320_320_0_9223372036854775000_0_1_0
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 creates 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.

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.

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 which has emerged over many millennia 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. 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….

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.

The role of … Cailleach…. is the wellspring from which Brigid’s power manifests in the world.

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. 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!

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

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.
Dolores Whelan ???????????????????????????????

An Embodied Presence

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

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

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

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

What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.
You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

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

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?
You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

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

Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.
Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.
I don’t talk about my friends.

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

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

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

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

But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.
It’s called A Woman in Love.200px-Catherine_Doherty_1970