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Evening Prayer in Merton’s Hagia Sophia

We come now to the final section of Thomas Merton’s Hymn to High Wisdom. For Merton’s Catholic sensibility, Sophia and Mary are one. As we look more closely at Merton’s poem for the Hour of Compline, we are guided by Christopher Pramuk’s  Reflections from his book: Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota 2009) with citations from Susan McCaslin’s “Merton and Hagia Sophia” in Merton and Hesychasm: Prayer of the Heart: The Eastern Church  (Louisville KY, Fons Vitae 2003)

Christopher Pramuk notes that in this Hour of Compline Merton returns to his artist-friend Hammer’s image of the woman who crowns the boy Christ:

It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature.  Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.

 

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Quoting Michael Mott, Pramuk adds, Where Merton expects us to see the image from the painting …he also expects us to hear music. Michael Mott The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 362

When the Salve Regina is sung by the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, all lights in the abbey church are extinguished except for one directed at the image of Mary in a window over the altar. (McCaslin in MHPH, 249)

“Yet,” Pramuk continues, “Mary crowns her son not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty. It is thus through Mary’s wisdom and sweet yielding consent that God enters without publicity in the city of rapacious men. Indeed her sadness and full awareness of what she is doing reflect a wisdom well beyond her years…that will one day cause a sword to pierce her own heart.” (206)

As McCaslin notes, Mary’s crowning of the boy Christ is “an act of feminine power.” This contrasts with images of Mary being crowned by Christ, “rather than she actively empowering him.” (McCaslin MHPH 250)

Continuing to draw from McCaslin, Pramuk continues: “in crowning the Child with his human nature, the poem reminds us that all men and women come from a common womb (the earth, the Feminine) and are alike vulnerable, frail, and utterly dependent on the earth and the feminine matrix.” (McCaslin MHPH 250)

By depicting the Child on the brink of adulthood, both the picture and the poem show our common humanity with Jesus “as ones who have undergone birth” as McCaslin says. Pramuk adds that we are like Jesus as well “as a people called to serve in world riven by sin and contradiction.” (Pramuk 206)

As incarnation of divine Wisdom, “the Child goes forth to …crucifixion and resurrection. As humanity the child goes forth, an Everyman or Everywoman, into exile from paradise.” (McCaslin MHPH 249)

Pramuk continues: “Mary, in her wise answer accepts the contradiction. Through her understanding, God enters without publicity into human history. The final scene of the poem, as Michael Mott notes, is a scene of haunting ‘solemnity, great beauty, and a piercing loneliness’.”(Mott,363)

The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin to sleep.  Night embraces the silent half of the earth.

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road.  A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep. (Thomas Merton 1962)

Pramuk quotes McCaslin who finds here “a strangely modern figure of the exile or God as exile in us.” (MHPH 250) This suggests that “human destiny in a world exiled from Sophia is not altogether different from that of Jesus, the Son of Man who “has nowhere to lay his head.”

Reflecting on this final scene of the poem, Pramuk writes:

“What meaning can our lives have, after all, in the ‘vast expanses’ of an evolutionary universe? Like the hospital patient in the opening section of the poem; like Mary, receiving with astonishment the message of the Angel Gabriel; like Joseph who struggles in faith to make sense of it all; like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nicodemus, John, all the hidden but crucial players in the narrative subtext pf the gospels –

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when  night embraces  the silent half of the earth everything depends on our laying ourselves down under the sweet stars of the world and giving ourselves over to the hidden Wisdom of God. Though our heads may pound with the clamor of many doubts and fears, and though it is more difficult than ever to see the stars, or even to remember to look for them through the glow of towering, sleepless cities, there is an inner music of Love, Mercy and Understanding that rises up from the earth itself, Natura naturans, and from the still point of the human heart, asking to be set free in the world. She is Wisdom, our Sister: God-given and God Himself as Gift. When we attend to her tender voice and give our quiet consent, she effects in us a work greater than that of Creation: the work of new being in grace, the work of mercy and peace, justice and love.” (Pramuk 207)

 

 

A Spring Ritual for Imbolc

Dolores Whelan organized and led the Brigid of Faughart Festival which I attended in Ireland in late January/early February of this year. I first came to know Dolores through her book Ever Ancient, Ever New: Celtic Spirituality in the 21st Century (Columba Press, Ireland, 2006; Original Writing Dublin, 2010). That book became for me, and remains, my guide to the Celtic Year with its earth-related festivals.

Here is Dolores’ teaching on the Festival of Imbolc:

“Imbolc is synonymous with Brigid, Celtic Goddess and saint,
who embodies the energy of new life and of new beginnings.
She is the fertile aspect of the divine feminine energy,
which emerges from the hag or cailleach,
that dark barren aspect of the feminine energy.

“This transformation of the cailleach into the maiden
reflects the same mysteries which are happening
in the natural world as winter yields to spring.

“Brigid is the energy which at this time breathes life
into the mouth of dead winter.

“She is the fertility goddess
who embodies the neart or life force,
that raw primal feminine energy
which gives rise to all living beings.”

At the close of this year’s Brigid Festival, Dolores led us in a ritual which I shall reconstruct here for you in my own words:

“Tonight our ritual begins with a thank you and farewell to the cailleach who brought us into and through the darkness of winter where new life was being planted deep within each of us. As we prepare to thank the cailleach, we may reflect on what new seeds the darkness has quickened within us. Someone will carry the statue of the cailleach around our circle so that we may offer our thanks and our farewell.”

 

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the cailleach

The bearer of the cailleach energy lifts the statue from the centrepiece and carries it to each woman in our circle, allowing time for each of us to quietly express our gratitude and say goodbye.

 

“Imbolc welcomes the maiden into our lives,” Dolores says. “Someone will now carry the image of the spring maiden around the circle so that we may welcome her into our lives. 20180204Spring Maiden Ritual Closing

Spring Maiden

“As we wait for our turn, we may become aware of the way the neart, the life force, is rising in us, breathing life into our being. How will our lives be different now?”

As the image of the maiden is carried around our circle, we welcome the life force of spring.

After we have each greeted the maiden of spring, Dolores speaks:

“Brigid has the ability to stand in the gap and remain centred within the uncertainty present in the outer world. This quality of being centred and aligned with one’s deep inner knowing is a quality that each of us can and must develop at this time.

“In a few moments, I will take the crios (a belt braided from strips of cloth and used in ancient times to assist in childbirth) and place it in the open space beside the centrepiece. I will invite you, each one of you as you feel ready, to come to the crios and imagine it as a womb of new life. Step into the crios womb and speak aloud your intention for this new springtime, the way you wish to stay centred. As each one speaks, we will respond: We support you in this. Then move forward to step out of the circle on the far side to symbolize your emergence from the womb.”

Dolores arranges the crios in a womb shape and asks, “Who would like to begin?”
One by one we, both women and men present, enter the crios, state our intention for this new springtime, receive the affirming support of our companions.

When everyone has completed the Crios Ritual, Dolores speaks once more:
“Brigid’s followers were charged with holding the seed of the fire on behalf of the community, that is holding the seeds of a life-enhancing energy on behalf of the people. This fire would not burn or be destructive so long as they remained focused, aligned with their own inner truth and undistracted by flattery, or by popular opinions.

“So for us people, in this time, who are charged with embodying the energy of Brigid, it is essential that we stay focused on our task which is to act, like Brigid, as midwives to a new era, a new day, a new way of being.”

 

 

 

Brigid: Celtic Face of Sophia

Edinburgh was coated in light snow on that February day, twenty-five years ago, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore the ancient city. The National Gallery of Scotland lured me within, down a narrow staircase to an explosion of beauty, wildly out of proportion to the size of its modest rooms, its small wall space. I hold vague memories of standing in awe before landscapes, clusters of children in a garden, beautiful women, solemn portraits of men whose painted faces gazed back at me.

But one image remains etched in rich detail in my mind. I stopped, breathless, before John Duncan’s 1913 painting called, “St. Bride”. Two angels in gloriously patterned robes, whose miniature tapestries held scenes from Celtic mythology, were carrying a white-robed maiden, her hands joined in prayer. One angel supported her back with his hands, as her golden hair falling in great waves towards the sea. The other angel held her ankles while her knees rested on his shoulders. The angels’ wings were a symphony of colour from scarlet to rose to pale pink, shaded with greens, golds, midnight blues. The angels’ toes just brushed the surface of the sea where a seal swam ahead of them.
I had no idea what I was seeing.

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“St. Bride” by John Duncan 1913

That evening, in the home of the friend with whom I was staying, I learned the story of Brigid. Legend tells that she was carried by angels across the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem in Judea, to be present at the birth of Jesus, that she became his foster mother. Other tales add that Brigid served Mary as mid-wife, and that when Herod was seeking the Child to destroy him, Brigid distracted the soldiers by running through the streets, allowing Mary and Joseph to escape with Jesus.

As I am sure you recognize, we are in the realm of story. But as I hope you realize, it is the story that matters, that lures us, inspires us, teaches us what we need to understand about life, about the sacred feminine aspect of the Holy.

Brigid, who was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD, left no writings of her own. But there is a cauldron of stories that were carried in the oral tradition until Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote his “Life of Brigid” around 650 AD. At the time of his writing, Cogitosus noted that in the Kildare monastery, the nuns still guarded her sacred fire.

According to Cogitosus, Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach, a pagan noble of Leinster, while her mother Brocseach was a Christian. Baptized at an early age, Brigid was fostered by a Druid. The stories of Brigid reveal her spirit of compassion for the poor: one day when she was a child, after she had milked the cows, she gave away the milk to some poor persons who were passing. She feared her mother’s reproof, but when she arrived home, her milk pail was found to be even fuller that that of the other maidens.

The adult Brigid approached a rich landowner, asking for land where she might grow food for the poor. The landowner agreed to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Brigid lay down her cloak and it expanded until it covered many, many acres. Another story tells of Brigid’s father preparing for her marriage to a nobleman while Brigid herself wanted to become a nun. Through the intervention of the Christian King of Leinster, Brigid’s desire was granted. With seven other young women Brigid was consecrated to Christ. In a wonderful tale, during the Ceremony for Consecration of a woman to Christ, the very old Bishop Mel of Ardagh mistakenly read for Brigid the words for Consecration of a Bishop. When his mistake was pointed out to him by co-presider Bishop MacCaille of Longford, Mel insisted that the Consecration would stand, as it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit, and that Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland.
In the book Miniature Lives of the Saints, I came upon this explanation for Brigid’s title, “The Mary of the Gael”: At a synod held near Kildare, during the lifetime of the saint, says an old legend, one of the fathers declared that he had seen a vision, and that the Blessed Virgin would on the morrow appear among them. Next day Brigid arrived with her companions, and the father immediately exclaimed, “There is the holy Mary whom I saw in my dream.” Brigid accordingly came to be called “The Mary of the Gael,” that is, of the Irish; for so pure was she in spirit, so holy in every action, so modest, so gentle, so filled with mercy and compassion, that she was looked on as the living image in soul and body of Mary the Mother of God. (London, Burns and Oates, 1959)

Legend says that Brigid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, one foot within, one foot outside the home. This would seem to be a prophecy for a life that would become a threshold, bridging pagan and Christian, woman and man, rich and poor….Goddess and Saint.

For the story of Brigid, founder of the Christian Monastery of Kildare is interwoven with the ancient Irish goddess who shares her name. As goddess, Brigid is known as maiden, mother and crone. And the Feast of Saint Brigid, February 1st, coincides with the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc, the beginning of spring. It is Brigid who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. It is Brigid who holds the Cailleach energy, the energy of the cauldron where our lives, individually and communally, need to be transformed through the power of her fire, her water. We are now halfway through the dark time of the year, the feminine days within the transformative cauldron. This is the time when, as Celtic teacher Dolores Whelan says, winter is pregnant with summer.

As we celebrate Brigid’s Day we turn our eyes, our hearts, towards the maiden aspect of the sacred feminine, awaiting the return of the young days of spring, the promise of new life within as well as outside of us.

 

Mary Waited

Mary. Waited.

I write these two words, and come to the end of what I know about this time in Mary’s life, as she awaits the birth of her promised son. It is not possible for me to imagine myself into her time of waiting, nor to summon up any experience in my own life that might help me to understand what was in Mary’s heart as she waited.

Frustrated, I put on high boots and a warm jacket. I go outdoors on this snow-blessed day to walk along the Nature Trail that winds between stands of evergreens to the ruined railway bridge above the Bonnechere River.

What I notice first is utter stillness. Not only the trees, their limbs, branches, twigs and needles, but even the left-over tall weeds of autumn are motionless.

Waiting, I think. They are waiting. But for what? for whom? and why?

As my boots sink deep into wet snow, creating a fresh pattern beside the marks left by animals, I continue to wonder about the trees. There is a quality of presence in these woods that speaks of quietly-held strength, invisible energy.

A memory returns from late last winter, when there was still no visible sign of spring. I was standing beside a delicate silver maple that hovers just at the river’s edge. I had placed my palm on the strong slim trunk that erupted above me into a rack of apparently dead branches. I wondered how the tree felt knowing she appeared to be so lifeless. As though she were responding to my question, I suddenly knew that the tree’s sense of herself came not from this barren outer form but from her inner life, her sap already rising, preparing for the new life of spring. She knew herself by her energy, by the movement of life within, only barely contained, ready to push beyond this apparent death out into fullness of life.

That evening, I came across a poem from the 12th century Sufi Mystic Hafiz, a promise to the tree, to me:

Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,
For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown in an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.
Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy…
A life–giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come…..

(Daniel Ladinsky trans. in The Subject Tonight Is Love)

Now, today, as I begin the walk home, the early darkness already rising around me, I feel I have begun to understand something about waiting: the trees’ waiting, Mary’s waiting and my own. Expectant waiting is an active experience. It is rich with joyous anticipation, strengthened with deep trust in the promises given, and busily engaged in the work of nurturing the “divine seed” that Hafiz speaks about.

For “Love will surely bust (us) wide open into an unfettered blooming new galaxy” bringing “a life–giving radiance”, bringing “the Friend’s gratuity”.

This time of waiting in Mary’s life invites us to wait with her, companioned by her barely-contained anticipation.

But there is more.

For, if we can begin to know that Mary has become for us in our time, when our need is so great, an expression, a manifestation, a presence of the One in whom ancient peoples lived and moved and had their being, our waiting is turned inside out! Then we glimpse that the winter trees, the snow-covered earth, the entire aching planet, and we ourselves are held within a womb, nurtured from the life, the body, of the Great Mother. And that what we are each awaiting is our own birth into the fullness of life to which we are called.

The mystic-poet Jessica Powers expresses this beautifully:

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 expectance 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 come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:
someone is hidden in this dark with me.
(Jessica Powers 1948)

We. Wait.

 

Sophia in Egypt Twenty-Seven

The Great Pyramid

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Though it is clearly visible across the wide expanse of sand, the Great Pyramid is too far from the Sphinx for a casual walk. We reboard the bus to travel to the place of our final Sacred Ritual in Egypt. Mohammed has arranged for our group to have this magnificent place to ourselves for the next two hours.

Up close to the Great Pyramid, all perspective is lost. I might be gazing upwards from the base of a mountain, its peak unseen. Except that this mountain has not grown up out of the earth but was placed upon it, block by block 4500 years ago. It is the largest building ever constructed, covering thirteen acres.

This pyramid functioned as an enormous sundial. Its shadow to the north, and its reflected sunlight to the south, accurately marked the annual dates of the solstices and the equinoxes. Once these weathered stones were young, fitted together with such precision that no breath could move between them, a seamless creation. Today, they are teeth worn down by time in the mouth of someone ancient of days. They are rounded, gaping. And they are not smiling.

Jean Houston leads us up a path that has been carved into the sides of this pyramid, with stone blocks for steps, crossing at an angle, leading into an entranceway. Later, I would see the analogy of entering a birth canal, climbing back up inside a womb. Now, I am aware only of being in a scarifyingly narrow stone passageway, drawing us upwards. The air is dusty, the light dim, the path morphing into an alarmingly steep tilt. Here we must bend our backs, lean forward to walk like ancestral apes to avoid the low ceiling. Our feet would surely slip, creating a dangerous domino effect on the people behind us, were it not for the placement of horizontal bars of wood, a ladder embedded in stone. At one point, we are invited to look down, down, down to our right, into a great carved hollow that is called the Queen’s Chamber. The climb is featureless, offering no indication of progress, no promise of soon reaching the end, no helpful wall maps that say You are here.

I feel tired, breathless, and wonder how my companions are managing. Soon I have energy only to concentrate on getting myself up, up, up into the highest chamber in the pyramid: the King’s Chamber.

Hope comes in song, as music drifts down towards us, at first only a faint chanting, increasing in volume and clarity as we climb towards our companions who are already within the chamber. Quite suddenly the passageway ends and I follow those ahead of me into a rectangular high-ceilinged room, as wide across and about half as long as the chapel at the Garrison Centre where we gather for Mystery School. Jean is leading the singing that I heard, leading the group in the sacred Egyptian chant of Sa, Sekhem, Sahu.

I join in, knowing now that singing activates the sacred space, remembering our resonant song in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings.Members of our group continue to come through the doorway, each finding a place to sit, backs resting against the stone walls, picking up the chant. As we sing, I gaze around the room. I am relieved to see the subtle glow of artificial lights, to hear the faint breath of an air exchange system. Without these amenities, it must have been a terrifying place for the ancient initiates. For this room was once a place of sacred ritual for Mystery School students. At one end of the room, to the right of the entrance way, a huge stone sarcophagus stands, open, waiting.

Jean and Peg explain the ritual. Each of us is invited to form a request, an inner desire, and then to approach the great sarcophagus. Two of our companions, Dwayne and Joan, will assist each of us to climb into the sarcophagus, creating a balance of masculine and feminine energies. We will lie there for a few moments, a ritual of passing through death, before rising, emerging into life. Unlike the ancient initiates, we will not spend a night in the coffin.

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the Sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber made of red Aswan granite

(from Called to Egypt on the Back of the Wind by Anne Kathleen McLaughlin, Borealis Press, Ottawa, Canada, 2013) This book may be ordered online at http://borealispress.com

Sophia in Egypt: Twenty-Two

Mohammed has arranged a private time for our group in the shrine of Sekhmet. As our group regathers, makes its slow way through the intense heat towards the shrine, there is an air of quiet, expectation, reverence. We come to a small stone building with two tiny rooms. Jean invites those who feel a particular connection to Sekhmet to join Peg and herself in the ritual.

Sekhmet is a mystery to me, one I have never sought to understand. My drawing has been towards the light, the loving feminine presence I have encountered whether as Mary, as Isis, as Hathor. Sekhmet, the fierce dark side of that sacred energy, has no allure for me. I wait outside with the others who, like me, move restlessly, aware that something sacred is happening within. I hear Jean’s voice and Peg’s in snatches of prayer, words of ritual.

Then something rises in me, some fierce desire to be part of this. I place my hands, palms down on a stone table, an ancient altar that stands just outside the open door. I say silently to myself,” I am here as high witness.”

A stillness rises among those of us who wait outside, as if the group has become one in that same desire. We are united in a space of utter soundlessness.

After a while, the members of our group who have been inside come outdoors and the rest of us are invited into the tiny sanctuary of Sekhmet. The room is so small that some of us must wait in the antechamber for our turn to enter the shrine.

When I enter the room, I look ahead to where she is seated, a woman of black granitee with a lion head, a face that is somehow both fierce and tender. She is naked but for a pectoral intricately carved, resting on her breast bone. A solar disk encircles her head, but the millennia or a more dedicated cruelty have gouged it so it looks wounded, like the stone heart I picked up earlier. Across her knees is a stone slab that may have been a book. Both her arms and one hand have been smashed. The remaining hand rests on the book. The walls behind are covered in hieroglyphs and paintings, so darkened with age that they are nearly silent.

 

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Another Statue of Sekhmet

Whatever I expected, Sekhmet is more. I am not afraid of her. I watch as the people ahead of me approach her, as they reach a hesitant hand to touch her. I notice Jean standing beside the statue, watching each person closely, aware that anything might happen.
When at last I am face to face with Sekhmet, I lift my right hand, touch her cheek.
I know what I must ask. Only a few hours ago, I was offered a gift, a luminous globe of rose and white light, a gift that can fill my heart with a love that will both answer my own longing and pour itself out for others. The tears of grief and loss that followed the offering showed me that I am still caught in my old emptiness. Now I need to accept the gift. I must activate it now. Here. In the presence of the dark goddess, I have to say yes or face a lifetime of falling back into my old Sethian ways. I ask for strength to be my godded self.

All of this happens in an instant, in the time between the lifting of my hand and its tentative touch on the lion face. And in that instant, Sekhmet speaks to me clearly, fiercely: Give up the allure of tragic romance and all its amenities. Your sorrow will not draw love. It will not. You are holding onto old grief. Let it go.

Afterwards, walking away from the Shrine of Sekhmet, I fall into step with Jean and Michael, a young doctor who is part of our group. Jean is holding something in her hand, opens her palm to reveal a small nail. “Bob had a broken bone set with this when he was a child. I found it among his ashes.”
I knew that Jean had brought her husband’s ashes here to Karnak, to the Shrine of Sekhmet to whom he had been devoted, of whom he had written extensively.

Myths collide: Isis, Osiris, Jesus.
“You have invited all of us into your own mythic story,” I say, thinking of the ritual we’ve just had.

“Were you startled by Sekhmet?” Jean asks.

“She is very fierce, “I say, “but I see all aspects as one now, part of the Sacred Feminine.” Only as I speak the words do I realize I now know this in my bones.
“But she is startling.”

As we’ve been making our way along the open pathways back towards the main temple of Karnak, Aten, the Sun god, has been baking us. Michael and I have been drinking from our water bottles. Peg catches up to us, offering Jean a container of water. Absorbed by our conversation about myths and goddesses, I hadn’t even noticed that Jean didn’t have any water with her. I have a great deal to learn about the practice of loving.

(excerpt from Called to Egypt on the Back of the Wind  Anne Kathleen McLaughlin,
Borealis Press, Ottawa, Canada, 2013  http://borealispress.com)

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