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brigid of kildare: three

Who is Brigid for us today? We take inspiration from her, and yet we are separated from her life by a millennium and a half. We don’t live in a monastery, or in a way of life intimately tied to the land and its cycling seasons.

Brigid’s Celtic Soul …continues to challenge each new generation

In her book Praying with Celtic Holy Women Bridget Mary Meehan writes that “the force of (Brigid’s) Celtic soul is a rich lodestone of the Celtic feminine which continues to challenge each new generation.” (p.29)

Consider the word Meehan chooses: a lodestone, a magnet, a thing that attracts…. What is it in Brigid’s story that so attracts us after so many centuries? I will give my own answer, inviting each of you to give yours.

What I see in Brigid is that she matters to the time in which she lives, and to the people whom she serves, as we each hope to do in some way.

But she also matters (maters as in mothers) to the Church where her leadership was strong, recognised and luminous.

As a woman living in the 21st century, my spiritual work, my writing, is largely ignored by the Institutional Church.

Until now, I have not minded. It allows a certain freedom. But something in Brigid’s story makes me wonder if perhaps it does matter very much indeed that the Church to which I have belonged since infancy does not appear to need or even notice women.

How does the Celtic Feminine as expressed in Brigid’s life challenge us in this matter?

Bishop Mel…consecrated Brigid as a bishop

We know the story of how Bishop Mel, guided by the Holy Spirit, consecrated Brigid as a bishop. We know that her monastery in Kildare was a double monastery, housing consecrated women and men, as was the way in the Celtic expression of Christianity. Brigid would have ministered as Abbess/Bishop to both women and men.

The development of Irish Monasticism appears to have been richly differentiated, a garden of wild profusion and endless variety so there is no way of knowing how or when or why Brigid’s monastery of women began to welcome men.

But here is a story I found that tells how it may have happened:

One day a group of men, for whom Brigid’s faithful spirit and generous heart were as a lodestone, came knocking at the door of the Kildare Monastery, requesting that they be allowed to join the community. Brigid consulted with her Sisters. They were aghast! What? Men! Noisy, unruly, bothersome. No way! Brigid’s first assistant sealed the matter with the words that have frequently put an end to something new: “It’s never been done before.”

Still not at ease with the decision, Brigid went outside and sat near the holy well. Something urged her to look deeply into its dark waters, recalling  that imagination dwells in the dark places. Brigid picked up a tiny stone and dropped it into the well. Down, down it fell, until a small splash in the deep told her it had reached the water. But there was still nothing to be seen in the well’s depths. She picked up another stone and dropped it into the well. Just at that moment the noonday sun at its highest place in the sky illumined the water where the stone had struck. Brigid saw tiny circles rippling out from where the stone had pierced the water.

In the depths of her own imagination, Brigid saw a circle widening. She thought about this: “Because it’s never been done before does not mean it can never be done.” And it was so. Kildare become a monastery for both men and women, drawn by the depth of Brigid’s holiness.

Seeking a meaning for the word lodestone I notice another word: lodestar. This refers to the star by which a ship navigates, usually the pole star. Symbolically it refers to a guiding principle. This illumines something for me, shining into the wells of legend and story that flow around Brigid’s life. Under the tales there is a guiding principle that will illumine our lives if we look deeper.

What was the lodestar of Brigid’s life, the star by which she navigated the uncertainties and challenges that faced her each day? In an imaginal dialogue with Brigid, I asked her how we each might keep our inner fires alight. Here is her response:

From the first moment I met the Holy, my thoughts have never left her…. Can you say the same? Or are you like Brendan, anxious about the weather and the tides and the location of the fish? focused on your important tasks but forgetting the one thing necessary?  

I had to admit to her how easily I lose focus, forget the One who began this work in me, let the Holy One slip from my gaze, from my path, from my heart. I realized then that it is the fire of a passionate love for the Holy that has been lit within me. A fire tender must first of all take care that the flame of her love burns bright.

All else, for each one of us, flows from that. 

The one thing necessary is the flame that must be tended and nourished from deep within. Then the fire may be turned to other uses: warming those who come near, creating art, poetry, song, melody and ritual, offering food to the hungry, and justice to those denied it.

Artwork by Jo Jayson

Brigid spoke again: If you turn your heart towards the fire, the other tasks will seem less arduous. The fire will ignite your creativity.

The love will give you the strength and joy you require. FOCUS! That’s the Brigid–gift I offer you. 

Brigid, you are our lodestone, drawing us to a life aflame. You are our lodestar, offering us guidance .The ripples make circles that widen,that embrace ever-new possibilities. Thank you.

Brigid of kildare : One

Brigid: “The Mary of the Gael”

Edinburgh was coated in light snow on that February day, almost twenty-five years ago now, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore the 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 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 fell 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.

Painting by John Duncan National Gallery of Scotland

I had no idea what I was seeing.

That evening, in the home of the priest 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, and 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 back 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.

The life of Brigid is in some ways more mysterious than the life of Mary. With Mary, we have the fragments of the Gospels. For Brigid, what we have are mostly legends.

Brigid was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD. A wealth of stories about her were carried in 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 Virgin 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. 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 door. 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, as we have already read in Dolores Whelan’s article, holds the Cailleach energy, the energy of the cauldron, where our lives, individually and communally, may be transformed through the power of her fire, her water.

Brigid : Wise Guide for Modern Soul Seekers

Brigid’s Day is celebrated on February 1st, ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc . Brigid is known as the one who”breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. Brigid has left us no written word. Her earliest biography was written a hundred years after her death by Cogitos, one of the monks of Kildare, the double monastery where Brigid was Abbess of both men and women in fifth century Ireland.

Brigid of Irelanad

Ireland is a land of story. The stories woven through and around Brigid’s life are interlaced with the stories of the Ancient Goddess Brigid so that the two have come to be one sacred archetypal presence. This is best illustrated in words overheard a few years ago at a ceremony at Brigid’s Well in Kildare: “Sure and wasn’t she a goddess before ever she was a saint.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    In the winter of 2018, I was in Ireland for Imbolc, the Feast Day of Brigid.  Staying in the home of Dolores Whelan, I found in her garden small snowdrops blooming For a Canadian, such flowers in late January appeared miraculous.

snowdrops for Brigid’s Day

Dolores, who is my primary teacher in the ways of Brigid, showed me the hill of Faughart, clearly visible from the upper story window of her home. Faughart is known in legend as the birthplace of Brigid. I had the joy of being present at the Oratory in Faughart on February 1st, Brigid’s Day, for a Ritual of Music and Readings.

In her article, “Brigid of Faughart – Wise Guide for Modern Soul Seekers”, Dolores Whelan writes of coming to know Brigid:

Faughart, near Dundalk ,Co Louth, Ireland is an ancient place filled with a history that is both gentle and fierce. It is a place associated with battles, boundaries and travel. The Sli Midhluachra, one of the five ancient roads of Ireland, runs through the hill of Faughart on its way from the Hill of Tara to Armagh and then to the north coast of Ireland, making it a strategically important place.

However, Faughart is also a place of deep peace, tranquility, beauty and healing, being associated from ancient times with Brigid, Pre-Christian Goddess and Christian Saint. Brigid holds the energy of the Divine Feminine within the Celtic Spiritual tradition. Faughart is the place associated with Brigid, the compassionate woman who heals, advises and nurtures all who come to her in times of need.

People are drawn to her shrine at Faughart because of the deep peace they experience there. Brigid’s peaceful presence can be experienced in this landscape where the ancient beech trees radiate old knowledge and hold a compassionate space for us all.

land, trees, water near Brigid’s Shrine, Faughart, Ireland

On La feile Bhride (Feb 1st) people come in their multitudes! On this special day the shrine at Faughart is thronged with pilgrims who come to invoke Brigid’s blessing on their emerging lives. Brigid is associated with springtime and new life emerging. She is the one who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter.”

Shrine at Faughart on Brigid’s Feast

I first went to Faughart in 1992 and was amazed by the beautiful energy present there. At that time, I had begun to study the Celtic spiritual tradition, something from which I and so many other people had been disconnected over many centuries. My quest at that time and since then has been to recover some of the riches and wisdom of that ancient tradition. And to ask the question:  “How could this wisdom be integrated into the lives of us modern humans in ways which would create a more balanced and peaceful life for all of the beings on planet Earth”?

While at Faughart in 1992 something deep and ancient stirred in my heart and I have been on a journey with Brigid ever since. In 1993 I went to The Brigid Festival in Kildare, organised by Mary Minehan, Phil O’Shea, and Rita Minehan (Solas Bhride). At this festival these women, in a daring Brigid-like action, re-kindled the flame of Brigid in Kildare. The flame of Brigid had been quenched at the time of the suppressions of the monasteries around the 12th century.

As this took place an ancient part of my soul understood the significance of this prophetic act. My journey into the Celtic spiritual tradition changed and evolved over time, becoming a deeply significant part of my life’s purpose.

It is said that from the moment Brigid learned to know God that her mind remained ever focused on God/Divine. This allowed her to remain connected to God and the heavens while living on the earthly plane. Her great power of manifestation was a result of this ability to be aligned heaven to earth. The strong connection between her inner and outer worlds allowed her to focus her energy onto a particular intention so clearly as to ensure its manifestation in the physical world.

Brigid had the capacity to bring forth new life, to nourish, to create plenty in the crops or an abundance of the milk from cows, and to manifest or create ex nihilo. This gift reflected the true abundance and prosperity that was present in the society she created, a society living in right relationship with the land. Her life and work thrived due to her deep trust in life and because there was a total absence of fear within her.

Slowly, I began to understand that Brigid, the Pre-Christian Goddess and Celtic Christian saint who lived in the 5thCentury in Faughart and Kildare, who embodied wonderful qualities of compassion, courage, independence and spiritual strength was not only a historical figure! I realised that those energies and qualities exemplified by her in her lifetime are still alive in the world and available to me and to all humanity. What a gift it was to realise this! And so the task became how could I access those qualities in myself, embrace them and use them to challenge the dominant thinking of our culture and become like Brigid, a catalyst for change in society.

Brigid challenges each of us to have that same courage; to live our lives with the passion and commitment that comes from trusting our own inner truth and living the integrity of our unique soul journey. She invites us, like her, to breathe life into the mouth of dead winter everywhere we find it in ourselves and in our society. She represents for me the spiritual warrior energy reflected in this ancient triad “The eye to see what is, the heart to feel what is, and the courage that dares to follow.”

Deep thanks to Dolores Whelan for this compelling, insightful reflection on Brigid’s gifts for our time.

To read more from Dolores, go to her website: http://doloreswhelan.ie

Apostle to the Apostles

images (3)

This Magnificent statue created by artist Elizabeth Frink on the grounds of the Salisbury Cathedral in England shows the strong, purposeful Magdalene striding forth on her apostolic journey as “Apostle to the Apostles”.

“High on an escarpment crowning the medieval walled city of Vezalay France, stands the magnificent basilica of St. Mary Magdalene”. That is how Episcopal priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault opens her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (Shambala, Boston and London, 2010). Bourgeault spent Holy Week of 2005 with the young monastic order in residence at the Cathedral of Vezalay. Here she would have a stunning awareness of Mary Magdalene’s presence in the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Bourgeault tells us:

This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday Liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity….

The late afternoon shadows were already dimming the cathedral when we finished with communion, followed by the traditional stripping of the altar. And then came the ceremony I am speaking of. Two of the sisters brought forward a small corpus – the crucified Christ figure that traditionally hangs on Roman Catholic crosses. It was carved in wood, about two feet long. Tenderly they wrapped it in the altar cloth, laid it on the altar, and placed beside it an icon of the Shroud of Turin (the portrait of Jesus allegedly imprinted on his original burial shroud and revealed through radiocarbon dating). They set a small candle and incense burner at the foot of the altar. And then, as sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.

Enchanted by the mystical beauty of all this – the smell of the incense, the final shafts of daylight playing against the great stone walls of the cathedral – I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. I heard the description of Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body of Christ, wrapping it (just as the sisters had just done) in a linen cloth, laying it in a tomb. And then out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau…”
That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?

Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it reads: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. …. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left…. Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospel and actually read the story in a new way. (pp.5-6)

Bourgeault reflects further that much of what we know of Mary Magdalene has been absorbed “through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.” (p. 6)

Turning to the Gospels directly, Bourgeault focuses mainly on John’s account of the resurrection. Here is the story:

Mary (Magdalene) arrives alone at the tomb in the early hours of the morning to discover that the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away. She hurries off to find Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who race each other to the site, discover the tomb empty and the grave cloths rolled up, and return home in bewonderment. After the two of them have gone their way, Mary stays behind, weeping beside the tomb. Then, in a unique and immortally reverberating encounter:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

mary_magdalene by Sieger Koder

She thought it was the gardener and answered him, “… if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rabboni” – which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me; you see I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
So Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me. (John 20:14-18)

Bourgeault continues, pre-empting the June announcement from the Vatican:

It is on the basis of this announcement that Mary earned the traditional title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” The first to witness to the resurrection, she is also the one who “commissions” the others to go and announce the good news of the resurrection. (p. 8)

One small synchronicity I would like to point out: the verse in the Gospel of John cited above: Jesus said to her, “Mary.” is numbered John 20:16. The year of Mary Magdalene’s full recognition….

Apostle to the Apostles

On June 3rd in 2016, an announcement came from Pope Francis that you may not have heard. In its way it is more startling than most of what passes for daily news. Francis proclaimed that from now on Mary Magdalene is to be honoured as the “apostle to the apostles” and “first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus”. Her feast day, July 22nd, has been elevated to an Apostolic Feast of high honour commensurate with her male counterparts, to whom Jesus sent Mary saying, “Go and find the brothers and tell them: I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God and Your God.” (John 20: 17)

images (3)

This Magnificent statue created by artist Elizabeth Frink on the grounds of the Salisbury Cathedral in England shows the strong, purposeful Magdalene striding forth on her apostolic journey as “Apostle to the Apostles”.

“High on an escarpment crowning the medieval walled city of Vezalay France, stands the magnificent basilica of St. Mary Magdalene”. That is how Episcopal priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault opens her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (Shambala, Boston and London, 2010). Bourgeault spent Holy Week of 2005 with the young monastic order in residence at the Cathedral of Vezalay. Here she would have a stunning awareness of Mary Magdalene’s presence in the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Bourgeault tells us:

This mixed community of men and women monks is well known for the imagination and beauty of its liturgy, and toward the end of the Good Friday Liturgy I witnessed an unusual ceremony that changed forever how I understood my Christianity….

The late afternoon shadows were already dimming the cathedral when we finished with communion, followed by the traditional stripping of the altar. And then came the ceremony I am speaking of. Two of the sisters brought forward a small corpus – the crucified Christ figure that traditionally hangs on Roman Catholic crosses. It was carved in wood, about two feet long. Tenderly they wrapped it in the altar cloth, laid it on the altar, and placed beside it an icon of the Shroud of Turin (the portrait of Jesus allegedly imprinted on his original burial shroud and revealed through radiocarbon dating). They set a small candle and incense burner at the foot of the altar. And then, as sunset fell, one of the monks began to read in French the burial narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.

Enchanted by the mystical beauty of all this – the smell of the incense, the final shafts of daylight playing against the great stone walls of the cathedral – I allowed the sonorous French to float by my ears while I drifted in and out, catching what I could. I heard the description of Joseph of Arimathea asking for the body of Christ, wrapping it (just as the sisters had just done) in a linen cloth, laying it in a tomb. And then out of the haze of words came “et Mary Magdalene et l’autre Marie restaient debout en face du tombeau…”
That’s when I did my double take. Mary Magdalene was there? That was in the scripture? Why hadn’t I ever noticed it before?

Thinking that maybe my French had failed me, I went back to my room that evening, took out my Bible, and looked it up. But yes, right there in Matthew 27:61 it reads: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

Suddenly the whole picture changed for me. I’d thought I knew the tradition well. …. How could this key point have escaped my attention? No wonder Mary Magdalene came so unerringly to the tomb on Easter morning; she’d stood by in silent, unflinching vigil the whole time Jesus was being laid to rest there. Maybe she never left…. Since that moment I have literally not heard the Passion story in the same way. It inspired me to go back to the gospel and actually read the story in a new way. (pp.5-6)

Bourgeault reflects further that much of what we know of Mary Magdalene has been absorbed “through the dual filters of tradition and the liturgy, which inevitably direct our attention toward certain aspects of the story at the expense of others.” (p. 6)

Turning to the Gospels directly, Bourgeault focuses mainly on John’s account of the resurrection. Here is the story:

Mary (Magdalene) arrives alone at the tomb in the early hours of the morning to discover that the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away. She hurries off to find Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” who race each other to the site, discover the tomb empty and the grave cloths rolled up, and return home in bewonderment. After the two of them have gone their way, Mary stays behind, weeping beside the tomb. Then, in a unique and immortally reverberating encounter:

She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

mary_magdalene by Sieger Koder

She thought it was the gardener and answered him, “… if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rabboni” – which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me; you see I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
So Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, and this is what he said to me. (John 20:14-18)

Bourgeault continues, pre-empting the June announcement from the Vatican:

It is on the basis of this announcement that Mary earned the traditional title of “Apostle to the Apostles.” The first to witness to the resurrection, she is also the one who “commissions” the others to go and announce the good news of the resurrection. (p. 8)

One small synchronicity I would like to point out: the verse in the Gospel of John cited above: Jesus said to her, “Mary.” is numbered John 20:16. The year of Mary Magdalene’s full recognition….

Becoming Wild Inside

On the Greek Island of Paros we come upon a magnificent Church, built by the Roman Emperor Constantine to fufill a promise made by his mother Helena.  The Church of Panagia Ekatontapyliani (Our Lady of a Hundred Doors) is the oldest remaining Byzantine church in Greece

In 326, St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, sailed for the Holy Land to find the True Cross. Stopping on Paros, she had a vision of success and vowed to build a church there. She founded it but died before it was built. Her son built the church in 328 as a wooden-roof basilica.

Two centuries later, Justinian the Great, who ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565, had the church splendidly rebuilt with a dome. The emperor appointed Isidorus, one of the two architects of Constantinople’s famed Hagia Sophia, to design it.

Inside we come upon two large, luminous icons of Mary. Affixed to the lower frame of the icons we see images made of gold and silver in shapes depicting eyes, legs, arms….. Our guide, Calliope, tells us that these are offerings given in thanksgiving for a healing. Kapi reminds us that we saw something similar in the Museum: plaster representations of an arm or a leg that was healed, offered in thanksgiving to the healer god Asclepius.

Greece 2015 138

Icon of Mary in the Church of Our Lady of a Hundred Doors, Paros, Greece

 

The dogmas change; the traditions go on, Kapi comments, revealing yet another way in which Greek spirituality is part of a continuum from ancient days. Where once the Greeks sought healing from Asclepius, they now turn to Mary in their need.

On this beautiful island in the Aegean, the mystery of Mary of Nazareth confronts us. A woman wrapped in silence, the one who waits in the shadow for the great birthing, who “ponders in her heart” the wonders that follow upon the coming of her child.

As we prepare to celebrate the Birth of Jesus, the One whose coming brings Light at the darkest time of the year, Mary is a companion, a guide, a friend who walks with us in the darkness.

Mary has left us no written word. The little we know of her from the Gospels is sketchy at best, her appearances brief, her words cryptic. Yet her influence on Christian spirituality is staggering in its power.

Who is this woman, and how has she risen from a quiet life in the outposts of the Roman Empire to become, as the Church proclaims her, “Queen of Heaven and Earth”?

When we first meet Mary in the Gospels, she is being offered an invitation.

Here is how the Irish poet John O’Donohue imagines the scene:

 

Cast from afar before the stones were born

And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,

The words have waited for the hunger in her

To become the silence where they could form.

 

The day’s last light frames her by the window,

A young woman with distance in her gaze,

She could never imagine the surprise

That is hovering over her life now.

 

The sentence awakens like a raven,

Fluttering and dark, opening her heart

To nest the voice that first whispered the earth

From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

 

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;

Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

 

Where does our story touch Mary’s? Where are the meeting points? What are the words waiting for the hunger in us “to become the silence where they could form”? This might be a question to ask in our daily contemplative time… when our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?

From Jean Houston, we have learned that now there is no time for us to modestly refuse any call that smacks of greatness. The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of newness.

Here are Jean’s words, reflecting upon the call of Mary, the call of each of us:

Just think of the promise, the potential, the divinity in you, which you have probably disowned over and over again because it wasn’t logical, because it didn’t jibe, because it was terribly inconvenient (it always is), because it didn’t fit conventional reality, because… because… because….

 What could be more embarrassing than finding yourself pregnant with the Holy Spirit? It’s a very eccentric, inconvenient thing to have happen.

(Jean Houston in Godseed p. 38)

Eccentric. Inconvenient. Perhaps. But nonetheless it is our call. Mary’s story gives us the courage to say “yes” without knowing where that “yes” may lead. It is enough to know that certainly our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the limits of our longing

It is Holy Week, April, 2015. The promise of Resurrection is everywhere: in birdsong, in the first green shoots appearing in the wet earth, in the budding trees, in the softer air.

A dream comes to me in the night. I am standing in a darkened room where the different aspects of my creative work: my writing, my ministry with women, the plays I offer, the stories I tell, appear within lighted frames on the walls.

My mentor, Jean Houston is there. We walk together, looking at each image. Jean tells me she must leave, for it is time for me to travel alone. I must go further into the darkness of this room where there are no lights.

I sense in the dream that the Sacred Feminine Presence is waiting for me in the darkness. This is where the dream ends.

Not long afterwards (though at the time I made no connection with the dream), Jean sent an email telling of her intuition that I should come on the Journey to Greece she was leading in September. I was hesitant, unsure. Then I recalled the dream. I sensed that the journey to Greece was part of this call to meet the Sacred Feminine.

The weeks in Greece were so rich in insights, experiences, rituals, and healing of archaic wounds that I did not think of the dream again.

On our last morning on the island of Paros in the Aegean, in the time before the ferry departed, I was walking in the town, disappointed to find that the shops were not yet open… on one narrow street I saw a small building with an open doorway.

I walked inside, found a tiny darkened chapel with lighted red lamps near Icons. On the right wall an Icon of Mary drew me.

I stood spellbound. I felt invited to rededicate my life to the Sacred Feminine as I had done four years earlier. Words from one of Rilke’s poems rose in my heart, as though spoken by the Sacred Feminine:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

Go to the limits of your longing.

Embody Me.

Flare up like flame

And make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose Me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give Me your hand.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

Still, I could not go. I kept gazing at the Icon. Then I saw the Child in Mary’s arms.

Icon in chapel on Paros Island, Greece

Suddenly the “Sealskin, Soulskin” story in C.P. Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves came to me.

I recalled the teaching that when a woman has found her soul, it is her spirit (her son) that she sends to do her work in the world.

I recalled the words that the Sealwoman spoke to her son as she placed him on the shore in the moonlight, “Only touch what I have touched and I shall breathe into your lungs a wind for the singing of your songs.”

I felt that the Sacred Feminine was promising me the same, as well as inviting me to send my spirit – my work- into the world.

In that small dark chapel on Paros, the circle that had opened with the mysterious dream of the darkened room where I saw images of my work and was sent in search of the Sacred Feminine, was completed.

I offer this personal experience as an invitation to each of you to revisit  moments in your life when you were touched by a Sacred Presence, one for whom you may have had no name. Until now. May Rilke’s poem speak to your heart.

May each of us “let everything happen to (us): beauty and terror”.

May we make “big shadows” where the Sacred One may walk. 

May we too embody her, as we “go to the limits of (our) longing.”

Teilhard/ the CaULDRON of the Cailleach

Image of the Cailleach

We are moving further into the sacred season that follows the Celtic Feast of Samhain, the feminine womb time of darkness.

This is the time of the Cailleach, the Ancient Crone, the dark mother who calls on us to change our ways, to turn away from destructive behaviours that harm our planet and all that lives within and upon her.

It is the season of the great Cauldron of the Cailleach where the things that are unpalatable, the attitudes and activities that are endangering life, are to be transformed.

Where we ourselves are to be transformed.

“How might Teilhard’s teachings serve as a guiding light for this dark season?” I wonder.

As if in answer, these words leap out at me: “For Teilhard, autumn rather than spring was the happiest time of year.”  Intrigued, I read on:  “It is almost as though the shedding of leaves opened his soul to the limitless space of the up-ahead and the not-yet…”

(John Haught, “Teilhard de Chardin: Theology for an Unfinished Universe” Teilhard to Omega Ilia Delio, ed. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2014)

A scientist, a mystic, rather than a theologian, Teilhard deplored the way that theology continued to reflect on God as though the scientific fact of a still –emerging universe was either unknown or irrelevant.

Sixty years after Teilhard’s death, theologians are still engaged in the work of re-imagining a God who calls us forward into an as-yet-unknown reality.  

And yet, even a limited grasp, a glimpse, of what Teilhard saw of the “up- ahead and the not-yet” is enough to inspire hope.

Neither scientist nor theologian, I am a storyteller. I know how a change in the story has power to alter and illuminate our lives. Changing the story that once shaped our lives changes everything.

If we live in a story of a completed universe where once upon a perfect time our first parents, ecstatically happy in a garden of unimagined beauty, destroyed everything by sin, what have we to hope for?

The best is already irretrievably lost. Under sentence of their guilt we can only struggle through our lives, seeking forgiveness, trusting in redemption, saved only at a terrible cost to the One who came to suffer and die for us.

The suffering around us still speaks to us of punishment for that first sin, and the burden of continuing to pay for it with our lives…. Despair and guilt are constant companions.

Hope in that story rests in release from the suffering of life into death.

But if we live the story as Teilhard saw it, seeing ourselves in an unfinished universe that is still coming into being, everything changes.

In a cosmos that is still a work in progress, we are called to be co-creators, moving with the universe into a future filled with hope.

Our human hearts long for joy, and we love to hear stories where suffering and struggle lead to happiness, to fulfillment, to love.

The possibility that there could be peace, reconciliation, compassion, mercy and justice to an increasing degree on our planet is a profound incentive for us to work with all our energy for the growth of these values.

The call to co-create in an unfinished universe broadens and deepens our responsibility: Our sense of the creator, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the redemptive significance of Christ can grow by immense orders of magnitude. The Love that rules the stars will now have to be seen as embracing two hundred billion galaxies, a cosmic epic of fourteen billion years’ duration, and perhaps even a multiverse. Our thoughts about Christ and redemption will have to extend over the full breadth of cosmic time and space. (Haught, 13)

Haught believes that “if hope is to have wings and life to have zest,” we need a new theological vision that “opens up a new future for the world.”  

For Teilhard that future was convergence into God. His hope was founded in the future for he grasped the evolutionary truth that the past has been an increasing complexity of life endowed with “spirit”. 

At the extreme term of the convergent movement of the universe from past multiplicity toward unity up ahead, Teilhard locates “God-Omega”. Only by being synthesized into the unifying creativity and love of God does the world become fully intelligible. (18)

Teilhard saw God as creating the world by drawing it from up ahead, so that the really real is to be sought in the not yet.

And this means that: The question of suffering, while still intractable, opens up a new horizon of hope when viewed in terms of an unfinished and hence still unperfected universe. (p.19)

Haught believes that the concept of an unfinished universe can strengthen hope and love: … the fullest release of human love is realistically possible only if the created world still has possibilities that have never before been realized….Only if the beloved still has a future can there be an unreserved commitment to the practice of charity, justice and compassion. (19)

Teilhard’s embrace of an emerging universe is one of the reasons why his writings often lift the hearts of his scientifically educated readers and make room for a kind of hope…that they had never experienced before when reading and meditating on other theological and spiritual works.  (20) 

Today, November 5, 2019, a declaration, signed by 11,000 scientists, was released to the media.

It stated that we are experiencing a planetary climate emergency.

Rather than plunging us into despair, into guilt-ridden inaction, this intensifies our call to do what we can.

Working together communally, nationally, and internationally we can face this moment with courage.

The path has been set before us by scientists, by leaders in the ecological movement, by writers and thinkers who have known what is coming.

Even those signing the declaration believe it is still possible to act to meet this challenge.

Teilhard teaches us to see with clarity that even in this crisis we are being drawn forward by the Christic Presence, by the Love that is up ahead in a future that awaits us.

Knowing we are partnered and empowered for this time, this work, will give us the hope we need to do what we must.

TEILHARD’S CIRCLE OF SPIRIT

The internal face of the world comes to light and reflects upon itself in the very depths of our human consciousness. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We continue our spiral journey, guided by Kathleen Duffy, (Teilhard’s Mysticism, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2014) through Teilhard’s Circles of Presence, Consistence and Energy towards his discoveries in the Circle of Spirit.  As I begin today’s Reflection, lured by Teilhard’s vision for our planet, his hope for the spiritualization of consciousness, I hear another voice that breaks through: the voice of teenager Greta Thunberg who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a boat without the aid of fossil fuels to address World Leaders at the UN yesterday.

16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri – HP1EF9N1AIFX9

Her words to us: “HOW DARE YOU?” weave themselves through Teilhard’s words as counterpoint, a drumbeat, a call to action, a reminder of how little we have advanced on the path that Teilhard showed us. There was anguish on her face, passion in her words, a tone of despair as she cried out, “This is all wrong. I should not be here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” 

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Greta Thunberg

Asking why governments have failed to act on thirty years of scientific evidence that show the earth hurtling towards disaster, Greta expressed her inability to believe those who claim they understand the crisis. If you have truly understood, she told the assembly, and yet have not acted, “then you are evil”, and that she refuses to believe.

With Greta’s words still echoing, I begin, not with Teilhard’s own journey through the darkness of feeling himself like “a particle adrift in the universe”, before he became aware of the consiousness within matter, but instead with the ending of Kathleen Duffy’s Chapter on “The Circle of Spirit” . Here I find hope strong enough to support this NOW moment in our planetary story, a moment for which Teilhard intended to prepare us.

Inspired by Kathleen Duffy’s research into Teilhard’s thought, I would like to suggest what he might have said to young Greta had they walked together in Central Park.  

“Greta,” (I hear Teilhard say) “you showed great courage in your words today to the UN. You challenged the pretence of understanding as well as the despair that leads to paralysis by demanding that if the leaders understand the crisis, they must act. You told them they must not look to young people for hope because this is now their own task, their Great Work.  You have shown them the face of courage, matched with deeds, by crossing the ocean on a long journey unaided by fossil fuels.

“I believe firmly that nothing is more dangerous for the world than resignation and false realism. Though you are deeply distressed, you have chosen courageous action over despair. Know this, Greta; the Universe is drifting towards spirit in a forward movement that cannot ever be stopped. It is moving towards greater freedom and consciousness.

“The Internet, a technology I glimpsed in my lifetime, has allowed people around the planet to hear your words, even to watch your expression, your eyes, as you spoke yesterday. And yet not only your words, but your deep passion, your challenge, have entered the hearts of those who listened, and have entered the noosphere, a weaving of soul I imagined that gently wraps itself around the planet, its golden threads of spirit, its crimson threads of matter, intricately entwined. You, my dear brave Greta, are a weaver in the noosphere.

“The noosphere is conscious of itself, capable of collaboration, of spiritual relationship, and of sympathy, and thus of counteracting the dissolution brought on by individualization …though it is a fragile envelope, because of its capacity for relationship, it can overcome the tendency to fragmentation. I see it as the sphere of the conscious unity of souls…. I would call it “the Soul of the Earth”. You yourself are living the same vision, a young woman who understands that it is the capacity for relationship, for union, that brings about growth,  that must be our greatest source of hope.

“Moving from the individual to the collective is the most crucial challenge facing human energy. For the work can be done only if humanity participates in the forward movement and each person can be saved only by becoming one with the universe.

“My dear Greta, may you keep a zest for life, a passion for the whole and above all a flame of expectation for the awakening of full human potential. Only faith in the future will give us the motivation and the energy to overcome the obstacles to unity. We shall direct our energy to the creativity required to live the dream of the future.

“Keep developing a deep sense of yourself, Greta, the true self that allowed you to speak truth to power before the United Nations, unshaken by applause or criticism or any need for adulation. In your growth, be free to move beyond all boundaries, all structures and strictures that no longer serve the Great Work. Be like the cosmos as you continually develop new forms. I so look forward to what you shall become Greta, and to what you will achieve with your passion as you weave with the noosphere.

“And trust me in this, Greta, for I have passed through great darkness to come into the light that does not grow dim. Earth’s story is not ended. The Universe is not yet finished. Earth is moving towards wholeness, her people towards oneness.”

In gratitude to Kathleen Duffy for her own great work in bringing the essence of Teilhard’s spirit to us, I close with her words:

As co-creators in the ongoing evolution of life and spirit, the future of the cosmos depends on the choices that we make, the effort that we exert, the work that we do….The Great Work consists in providing impetus for the transformation into greater consciousness, promoting the cultural transition through which we as a species are slowly moving, fostering the next major phase transition in human history. It calls us to assess our impact, to take responsibility for our actions, and to forward the cosmic project in the direction of spirit. (TM 97, 106)

Teilhard: Circle of energy

Kathleen Duffy’s exploration of Teilhard’s Circle of Energy (Teilhard’s Mysticism, Orbis Books Maryknoll, NY 2014) shows the uniqueness of his mystic path.

Rather than fleeing the earth, Teilhard seeks the sacred in the deep heart of life on Earth in all its wonder and terror, and in the fiery depths of the cosmos, as it cycles through destruction and rebirth.

Touched by the intricate and beautiful structure of the cosmos and yearning to be possessed by the Sacred Presence that fills it…Teilhard continued his mystical journey, ever searching for the supreme tangible reality. As he stepped into the third circle, he found the cosmos ablaze with activity. The Divine Presence that had been alluring him had suddenly acquired a new aspect—Energy. (TM 55)

Teilhard was stirred by the evolutionary story, a story whose creativity and energy were shown to him in the layers of rock, in the depths of the earth, as he worked as a geologist and paleontologist. Enthralled by the emergence of living organic matter from inorganic, Teilhard writes:

See how (Earth’s) shades are changing. From age to age its colors intensify.Something is going to burst out on the juvenile Earth. Life! See it is life!” (The Human Phenomenon, 38, translation Sara Appleton-Weber, Portland OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1999)  

Teilhard imaged evolution as a tapestry whose threads revealed “the amazing energy at work at the heart of the cosmos” (TM 59).

He describes this tapestry as: endless and untearable, so closely woven in one piece that there is not one single knot in it that does not depend upon the whole fabric (Science and Christ, 79, trans. Rene Hague New York, Harper and Row, 1968).

Teilhard saw that since the beginning of time complex structures have been emerging from the union of simpler ones: “a thrust towards union seems to be coded into the very fabric of the cosmos” (TM 60).

As his awareness of the complexity and interconnectedness of the Universe deepened, Teilhard could see that these qualities lead to understanding our global life:

…No elemental thread in the universe is wholly independent…of its neighboring threads  (The Future of Man, 87, trans. Norman Denny, New York: Harper and Row, 1964).  For just as the simplest vibration of a single cosmic tapestry thread affects the whole fabric, so local interactions can be felt on a global scale (TM, 70).

Teilhard came to know the importance of considering the whole in order to grasp the order that lies under the appearance of disorder.

He intuitively understood that “deep down there is in the substance of the cosmos a primordial disposition …for self-arrangement and self-involution” (Heart of Matter, 33).

Yet Teilhard knew in his life what today’s scientists continue to explore: the “transition region between the two extremes of ordered stability and chaotic instability called the edge of chaos” (TM 73). In the trenches of World War 1, the horror in which he was immersed still allowed for “feelings of freedom, unanimity, and exhilaration” (TM 75).

Because he understood that “the self-organization of the world progresses only by dint of countless attempts to grope its way” (Christianity and Evolution, 187, trans Rene Hague, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), Teilhard saw the mystic must also “test every barrier, try every path, plumb every abyss” (The Divine Milieu, 70,  New York, Harper and Row, 1960).

Moving through the Circle of Energy, Teilhard became aware of the universe as “alive, vibrant, filled with Divine Energy and solidly enduring….undergoing a cosmogenesis…slowly moving it toward greater complexity and deeper union” (TM, 75).

This deep knowing led Teilhard to see his own sufferings as part of the larger story: Putting his personal suffering into a cosmic perspective, he turned his attention to the pain and suffering that pervades the evolutionary story, a story that is rife with misfortune, struggle, disease, and death: natural disasters beset Earth on every side; predators prey on more vulnerable species; changing environmental conditions cause many species to become extinct; within the human community, war and oppression continue to rage. It is not only humans who suffer. Every part of the cosmos bears the scars of the chaos and tragedy that accompany the evolutionary process (TM, 76-7).  

Within the cosmic story, Teilhard’s mystic path would become one of uniting with “the Divine Fire at work at the heart of matter” (TM 78)

Earth’s story had shown Teilhard that the Divine is continuing to shape the universe and therefore human action may “channel … the whole of the World’s drive towards the Beautiful and the Good” (Heart of Matter, 204).

Seeing the “sacred duty” of working with Divine Energy, Teilhard vowed: “I shall work together with your action…. to your deep inspiration… I shall respond by taking great care never to stifle nor distort nor waste my power to love and to do” (The Divine Milieu, 79).

In a letter written to a friend during his work as a geologist, Teilhard describes a moment of mystic knowing:

 … this contact with the real does me good. And then, amid the complexity and immobility of the rocks, there rise suddenly toward me “gusts of being,”sudden and brief fits of awareness of the laborious unification of things, and it is no longer myself thinking, but the Earth acting. It is infinitely better (Letters to Two Friends 1926-1952, 73, translated by Helen Weaver, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, New York: New American Library, 1967).     

Teilhard’s mystic path led him to the heart of the earth:  

He was convinced that he must steep himself in the sea of matter, bathe in its fiery water,plunge into Earth where it is deepest and most violent, struggle in its currents, and drink of its waters. Earth was the source of his life:through the world Divine Energy enveloped him, penetrated him, and created him. Because Earth had cradled him long ago in his preconscious existence, he knew that the Earth would now raise him up to God. (TM 80-1)

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives