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Brigid:Celtic Face of the Sacred Feminine

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 become 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.”

Last winter I was staying in the home of Dolores Whelan for a week of festivities marking Brigid’s Feast. Dolores, who is my primary teacher in the ways of Brigid, showed me the hill of Faughart, clearly visible from her upper story window… I had the joy of being present at the Oratory on February 1st, Brigid’s Day, for a Ritual of Music and Readings.

Here is the story Dolores tells of coming to know Brigid:

“Brigid of Faughart – Wise Guide for Modern Soul Seekers”

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 5 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 an 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.

20180201Faughart Oratory

Brigid’s Oratory at Faughart on February 1, 2018

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.”

20180201 faughart well and stream

stream on the oratory grounds with pilgirms arriving (upper right)

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.

20180129 Bhrigid Well Kildare

Brigid’s Well site near Kildare

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 5th Century 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.” Dolores T Whelan (

Women’s Christmas

home another wayIn her Retreat for Women’s Chrismas 2019, Jan Richarsdon writes:

There is a custom, rooted in Ireland, of celebrating Epiphany (January 6, which brings the Christmas season to a close) as Women’s Christmas. Called Nollaig na mBan in Irish, Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours. Celebrated particularly in County Cork and County Kerry, the tradition is enjoying a revival… As the Christmas season ends, this is an occasion both to celebrate with friends and also to spend time in reflection before diving into the responsibilities of this new year.


Constellation by Jan Richardson

A Blessing for Women’s Christmas

Consider that the heart

holds its own constellation.

Consider that it has

a secret chamber

radiant with unspent light.

Consider this when you cannot find

that one star, that dream

that compels you to the road.

When every last thing seems

to have disappeared into dark,

consider that you cannot always know

how you bear this brightness

but that it holds you

and is not wasted

or lost.

See how we share this sky,

how it stretches above us

beyond every border,

how every day

turns each of us

in steady revolution

through morning, night,

morning again.


Or think of it like this:

that every heart is its own voyage,

sending its vessels out,

drawing them back again,

never by the same way they went

but still somehow making for

home, that place

that shimmers now in welcome

with all the gathered light

you had thought

you could not see.

Consider what helps you put the pieces of your life together: the experiences you carry, the scraps of your story, the fragments that seem jagged and painful as well as those that you think of as beautiful. What response—in words, in images, in prayer, in movement, in stillness, in conversation, in solitude—helps you recognize and honor the pieces and put them together in a new way, making your path as you go?












Sophia: 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.


Catherine Doherty

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, sweet 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.


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.




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 –


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.”



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.


“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:

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


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.


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

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.



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

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