On the eve of the May 13th feast of Julian of Norwich, after weeks of cool wet weather, summer suddenly arrived. I set out to explore a new walking trail near my home. I’d noticed on an earlier walk that it branched off a snowmobile track that I knew. I was fairly sure it must connect with another walking/skiing trail, leading to a road some fifteen minutes further to the south.
After walking for almost an hour on a narrow path through dense woods, I became lost. The spring rains had left pools of water that swallowed the trail where it dipped. Seeking a way around one of these puddles, I lost sight of the path. I had no idea where I was. For the first time, I realized I was in danger.
I called out to Julian and at once caught a glimpse of the path up ahead.
I walked on, crossed a foot bridge, carefully placed by trail managers…
I continued on beyond an intersection of a snowmobile trail.
It was then that I noticed a small lonely trillium at the edge of the path, one I thought I’d passed already…but the woods were sprinkled with trilliums….I walked on.
Up ahead I saw a painted sign high on a tree: “Peter’s Path”. This I knew I’d already seen. I retraced my steps to where the snowmobile trail had intersected. I understood then that I’d walked a loop that brought me back to where the trail had begun. Soon a tall white pine spoke to me of home nearby….
Words of TS Eliot came to me, something about our end being our beginning. My thoughts on that long walk had been a seeking for direction in an aspect of my ministry. I knew now what I needed to do: circle back to the beginning of the work. I would seek fresh inspiration in a dialogue I’d written with Julian in 2013.
When I got home, I searched for the poem, found that it was the same one, “Little Gidding”, in his Four Quartets, where TS Eliot had quoted Julian of Norwich. I offer the last section of the poem for your delight:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
Today, May 13th is Julian’s feast in the Catholic calendar. If you are curious as to why Julian’s Feast in the Anglican calendar is on May 8th, here’s the answer, an illustration of the textual niceties that absorb attention when the focus might better have been on Julian’s glorious writings. As Julian’s original manuscript, written in her own hand, has never been found, we rely on early copies made; the oldest copy of the shorter text that survives was made fifty years after her death. In these earlier copies there is a discrepancy of dates given for her night of visions of the Crucified Christ. The Roman numerals in some manuscripts say May VIII (8) and some say May XIII (13). The Catholic position on this dilemma is that it is more likely a copier might accidently drop the bottom part of the X than that he or she would add to it. Therefore the date must have been XIII.
The happy result of all this is that Julian has two feast days!
Let me take up the tale Ii was sharing last week of my time in Norwich in 1999, offering the play, “Julian” written by James Janda. Following my visit with Julian in her reconstructed anchorhold in the Church of St. Julian, I returned to Felicity, who was organising the stage: “What do you suggest I do about changing into costume?”
“Why don’t you dress in Mother Julian’s cell and emerge from there to begin the play?”
So that is how it was, for the four performances over the two weekends. At first I had to catch myself in the midst of my lines, distracted by the thought, “It is happening here, in the very place where Julian lived”.
On the night of the third performance there was a difference. The wonder had not ceased, but the lack of reality was replaced by an intense awareness that was joyous. I felt the role with every aspect of my being, and in the midst of the first act, was so conscious of elation, that I tried to touch its source. It came to me soon enough.
That afternoon I had been invited to tea in the small apartment of Father Robert Llewellyn, an Anglican priest whose name I had seen liberally sprinkled through every bibliography of works on Julian. As we shared the last pieces of his ninetieth birthday cake, Father Robert told me of his assignment in 1976, to be a presence in the Julian Cell.
“For the first month, I spoke with no one,” he recalled. “I just went morning and afternoon and sat in her cell, and prayed.” After a month someone approached with a question, and gradually his work of listening and directing, mostly in aspects of prayer, began to grow. Through Father Robert’s efforts a bookstore/ study room and counselling room were created in a hall belonging to the Anglican convent next door. Now this “Julian Centre” attracts scholars and pilgrims who come to read about Julian, to ask about her teachings, to purchase books and souvenirs.
At the end of our visit, Father Robert asked if we might have fifteen minutes of silent prayer together. There were people he’d promised to pray for, and he suggested that prayers be offered for the performance scheduled for that evening, that it would reach people who would need Julian’s message.
The lightness and joy I felt in the midst of the performance that evening were the fruits of that silent prayer with Father Robert. After the first act, Father Robert pressed my hand to his heart. “Thank you,” he said. “You have given us a gentle Julian. You have made her homely.” With a smile he added, “I know in America, that is not a good word, but it is here.”
My life and my work have become intertwined with the wisdom and homely trust of this woman whose teaching is meant for the ordinary days of our lives. Days like my second last in England in that summer of 1999, when I stood at the airline desk, one half hour before the departure of my flight from Gatwick to Ottawa, and was told the flight was closed. In a moment of near panic, followed by a sense of utter despair, I said, “But what am I to do? I have nowhere to go.” I was met with closed faces. Then from within me Julian’s words arose: “He did not say `You shall not be tempest – tossed, you shall not be discomfited.’ But He said, `You shall not be overcome.'”
I believed her. I turned my luggage cart around, trying to balance the seven foot container of the tapestry, my luggage with costume and props, my weight of books on Julian. I stood in the middle of Gatwick Airport and cried. Then, having finished with tears, I wheeled the cart outside and found a taxi, a hotel, and the peace to accept this reversal. I was not overcome.
On May 8th Anglican Christians honour Julian of Norwich; five days later Catholics do the same. For my part I celebrate Julian on both days, for my gratitude to her cannot be expressed too often.
In these stressful, grief-filled days of COVID, it’s Julian to whom many now turn for hope and courage, for she lived through three outbreaks of the Black Plague which reduced the population of England by one half.
In the wonderful manuscript which she left us, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian shares with us the tender passionate love she experienced in a near-death experience, a night of visions of the Crucified Jesus. Of Julian herself we know almost nothing, not even her name. She took the name “Julian” when she became an anchoress in the Church of Saints Julian and Edward in Norwich England in the late years of the 14th century.
On a cold wet February day in 1992, I first visited Julian’s reconstructed cell in Norwich. I was on sabbatical in England, studying writing at the University of Sussex. I had a writing tutor from Magdalene College at Oxford, Geoff Hemstead, who was a gift of wisdom and encouragement in my fledging work. At his suggestion that I should learn about Julian, I searched the University’s library where I found a 1901 edition of Julian’s “Revelations”. Editor Grace Warrack wrote in her introduction:
From the first we find Julian holding her diverse threads of nature, mercy and grace for the fabric of love she is weaving…
But at the time, I still did not know her. Geoff began to urge me to visit Norwich, and it was only to quiet his insistence that I wrote to the Julian Centre and booked a room for that February weekend. After a two-hour train journey from London, I was walking through the streets of Norwich, map in hand, seeking the Church and Visitors’ Centre. Along King Street, turning right at Julian’s Alley, I found the tiny, perfect flint-stone church, a 1950’s reconstruction after the original was destroyed by a World War Two bombing. A plaque was set into the outer wall: Dame Julian of Norwich, Mystic, became an anchoress living in a cell attached to the south wall of this church soon after 1373, and here she wrote, “Revelations of Divine Love”.
The Church of St. Julian in Norwich , England
The Church was open. I went inside, walked up the centre aisle, saw a low wooden door to the right, with a sign welcoming visitors to the reconstructed anchorhold. I pressed the iron latch with my thumb and entered, thinking I’d take a few photos and leave.
I was stopped in my tracks. There was a presence in the room that I had to acknowledge. I sat down and began to tell this kindly wise woman about the pain that had brought me to England. She heard, and responded with words that sustained me for the rest of my sabbatical and guided me home. Julian has been my friend ever since.
That night in the guest house, I found a small book with a one-woman play about Julian. I copied down the publisher’s information. After I returned to Canada, I ordered the play, paying the royalty as an incentive to prepare to perform it.
In 1999, I returned to Norwich. This time, as I made my way along Julian’s Alley towards the church, my attention was caught by a notice attached to the arched front door. As I drew nearer to read, my eyes focused on something so unexpected that it sent a shock of amazement through my being. I was reading my own name. As I came closer, the whole notice was legible: it was the announcement of the four performances I had come to Norwich to offer, the one-woman play on the life and writings of Julian, written by James Janda.
The interior of the church had been adapted for the event. The altar, with its reredos (which had survived the bombing), stood just behind a built – up stage area, adding some three feet to the height of the floor, to allow the audience seated in the church pews a clearer view. Felicity Maton, secretary to the Friends of Julian, who had made the arrangements for the event, explained the plans for lighting. Together we examined the props: bed, trunk, stool and writing desk.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I said to Felicity. “I need to greet someone.”
I walked to the arched doorway at the right of the sanctuary, pushed my thumb down on the iron latch. The door to Julian’s reconstructed cell swung inwards.
Inside, all was as I had remembered it, as I had seen it in memory many times over the past years. I sat down on the bench that was built against the far wall, under the windows that in Julian’s time would have opened onto the street, but now looked out to the green grass and trees of the Church yard, edged with a gigantic bush of red roses.
I let my eyes rest on the marble slab that contained an image of the crucified Jesus. It bore the words that on my first visit had transfixed me, “Thou art enough to me.” This time, my eyes lighted on the other words carved into the marble, “Lo, how I loved thee.”
Reconstructed Anchorhold of Julian of Norwich
Yes. How you loved me, I repeated silently to the One who had brought me here, who had brought me on a far longer journey from emptiness to fullness over the past years, from the state of being without a ministry or a place to live, to the eruption in my life of a ministry so full and satisfying that I could hardly take it in.
On that earlier visit I had prayed to Julian, “Please, find me a work like yours, where I can speak to others of God’s love.” Now, in the palpable presence of Julian’s spirit, I thanked this goodly woman who had changed my life.
The super moon that announces Bealtaine was just rising over Lake Calabogie near my home in the Ottawa Valley on April 26th when I took this photo. Seeking wisdom to share with you as we approach the great festival of Bealtaine on May 1st, I found an article from 2012 by Celtic teacher and writer Dolores Whelan, author of Ever Ancient, Ever New (Columba Press, Dublin, 2006)
Dear friends, Greetings. Bealtaine has finally come to Ireland!
Bealtaine, the second most important festival of the Celtic calendar after Samhain, marks the passing from the dark inwardly focused to the bright outwardly focused half of the year.
There is something almost primal in my love of Bealtaine or May-time. Sometimes I wonder what is it that is so special about May time in Ireland? Is it the longer evenings? Is it the millions of wildflowers, primroses, wild garlic, bluebells and dandelions that grace the hedgerows? Or is it the burst of colour in the gardens or window-boxes? Is it that special almost translucent quality of greenness which is only present in May or the blanket of whiteness created by the ubiquitous Hawthorn?
Perhaps it is all of these together that allows the world around us to take on a larger dimension and allows us to see so clearly and so vividly the new life bursting forth after the restrictive darkness and coldness of winter. And perhaps the sense of the sap rising within ourselves adds to our capacity to see the world anew. It is as if both the soul of the earth and our own souls have awakened and are seeing the world as if for the first time.
Many of us who grew up in Ireland in the 50’s and 60’s have cherished memories of the Bealtaine / May time celebrations that took place in towns and villages all over Ireland. Joyful events like the May procession when we children dressed up in our Communion dresses or best Sunday outfits and walked through the streets where flowers decked the doors of the houses. We sang “Oh Mary, we crown thee with Blossoms today Queen of the angels and Queen of the May,” celebrating the union of heaven and earth and the fecundity of the mother and announcing the arrival of summertime.
Many people created a May altar in their homes with wild flowers and a picture of Mary the Mother of God to celebrate Bealtaine.
We sang “Thuagamar fhein an samhradh linn” ( We bring the summer with us or into us) reminding us that summer is not only a season happening in the land it is also a quality that we can embody in ourselves.
Perhaps what is most striking for me about the festival of Bealtaine is that it holds a great sense of anticipation and possibility. This new season has arrived, one that promises long days, perhaps even sunny ones. And who can know what will unfold during this time?
Some of the ancient customs associated with the festival of Bealtaine (at the time of the full moon in May) are still practised by some of us e.g. the ritual of going to a high and sacred place before sunrise to wait and greet the first rays of sun on the morning of La Bealtaine and bring water from a Holy well and allow those first rays of sun to strike the water; enacting the ancient ritual of the masculine and feminine energies uniting and empowering each other.
Gratitude and abundance are qualities that I associate with May-time because abundance is reflected everywhere at this time. It is difficult not be grateful in the month of May!!
For me Bealtaine is also a state of mind. It is a space where I can risk bringing something new out into the world of form so that it can blossom into its fullness. It is a place in me where I step boldly into the world, like all of nature does in May-time, regardless of what lies ahead. To know your own May-time requires a deep and sensitive listening to yourself and a willingness to be true to your process. I have often tried to force May-times in my life, to force a piece of work out of its inner space before it was ready, or to force myself to be in May-timebecause some aspect of my ego thought I should be. What I have learned is that when I do that to myself nothing blossoms!
I am also learning to recognise the many Bealtaine moments that are available in my life every day. These opportunities that happen at unexpected times are moments when I say yes to my life as it is this moment, and allow the moment to blossom into its fullness.
So today let us give thanks for the beauty of Bealtaine in the world around us and for the blossoming energy of Bealtaine wherever it is within ourselves.
Let us also honour the journey which began at Samhain and moved through each of the seasons until it reached Bealtaine, because I have found that, in truth, there can be no Bealtaine without Samhain.
Le gra and beannachtai , Dolores Whelan
The golden light of the Bealtaine sunrise at Deerpark Court Cairn, Co Sligo, May 6 2012
On April 10, 2021, the anniversary of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s death on Easter Sunday, 1955, was quietly honoured. During a 10th anniversary celebration of the film, “Journey of the Universe,” Teilhard’s profound influence and inspiration on the life and work of Thomas Berry as well as on the film’s narrator and co-writer Brian Swimme, were noted.
I imagine Teilhard smiling as Brian Swimme wrapped up this 14 billion year story with the words; “Wonder will guide us.”
What words might Teilhard offer to us now as we experience the imminent loss of so much that is beautiful and filled with wonder on our planer? That question led me to a reflection by Jean Houston.
At the time of their tumultuous first meeting in the early 1950’s, Teilhard was living in a Jesuit Residence in New York City, having been exiled from his native France, silenced, forbidden to write or to teach his advanced ideas about evolution.
Here is Jean’s account of their meeting from her autobiography, A Mythic Life (Harper Collins, New York, 1996). The great palaeontologist and mystic becomes for us, through Jean’s experience, a warm, enchanting, human presence.
Jean, a high school student, heartbroken over her parents’ impending divorce, had taken to running everywhere.
Then, one day…
on 84th Street and Park Avenue, I ran into an old man and knocked the wind out of him. This was serious. I was a great big overgrown girl, and he was a rather frail gentleman in his seventies. But he laughed as I helped him to his feet and asked me in French-accented speech,
“Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, thinking of my unhappiness. “It sure looks that way.”
“Well, bon voyage!” he said.
“Bon voyage!” I answered and sped on my way. About a week later, I was walking down Park Avenue with my fox terrier, Champ,and again I met the old gentleman.
“Ah,” he greeted me, “my friend the runner, and with a fox terrier.I knew one like that many years ago in France. Where are you going?”
“Well, sir,” I replied, “I’m taking Champ to Central Park. I go there most afternoons to … think about things.”
“I will go with you sometimes,” he informed me. “I will take my constitutional.”
And thereafter, for about a year and a half, the old gentleman and I would meet and walk togetheras often as several times a week in Central Park.
He had a long French name but asked me to call him by the first part of it, which as far as I could make out was Mr. Tayer.The walks were magical and full of delight. Mr. Tayer seemed to have absolutely no self-consciousness, and he was always being carried away by wonder and astonishment over the simplest things.
He was constantly and literally falling into love. I remember one time he suddenly fell on his knees in Central Park,his long Gallic nose raking the ground, and exclaimed to me, “Jeanne, look at the caterpillar. Ahhhhh! ”
I joined him on the ground to see what had evoked so profound a response.
“How beautiful it is,” he remarked, “this little green being with its wonderful funny little feet. Exquisite!Little furry body, little green feet on the road to metamorphosis.”
He then regarded me with interest.“Jeanne, can you feel yourself to be a caterpillar?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied with the baleful knowing of a gangly, pimply-faced teenager.
“Then think of your own metamorphosis,” he suggested. “What will you be when you become a butterfly? Un papillon, eh?What is the butterfly of Jeanne?”
What a great question for a fourteen-year-old girl, a question for puberty rites, initiations into adulthood,and other new ways of being. His comic-tragic face nodded helpfully until I could answer.“I …don’t really know anymore, Mr. Tayer.”
“Yes, you do know. It is inside of you, like the butterfly is inside of the caterpillar.”
He then used a word that I heard for the first time, a word that became essential to my later work.“What is the entelechy of Jeanne? A great word, a Greek word, entelechy. It means the dynamic purpose that is coded in you.It is the entelechy of this acorn on the ground to be an oak tree. It is the entelechy of that baby over there to be grown-up human being.It is the entelechy of the caterpillar to undergo metamorphosis and become a butterfly. So what is the butterfly, the entelechy, of Jeanne?“You know, you really do.”
“Well… I think that…” I looked up at the clouds, and it seemed that I could see in them the shapes of many countries.
A fractal of my future emerged in the cumulus nimbus floating overhead.
“I think that I will travel all over the world and … and … help people find their en-tel-echy.”
Mr. Tayer seemed pleased. “Ah, Jeanne, look back at the clouds! God’s calligraphy in the sky! All that transforming, moving, changing, dissolving, becoming. Jeanne, become a cloud and become all the forms that ever were.” (A Mythic Life, 141-3)
Years later, as Jean looked back on Teilhard’s effect on her life, as well as that of a few other such beings, she would write:
To be looked at by these people is to be gifted with the look that engenders. You feel yourself primed at the depths by such seeing. Something so tremendous and yet so subtle wakes up inside that you are able to release the defeats and denigrations of years.
If I were to describe it further, I would have to speak of unconditional love joined to a whimsical regarding of you as the cluttered house that hides the holy one.
(The Possible Human, 123, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1982)
Easter Saturday is usually a quiet day, a time of waiting, doing some house cleaning, anticipating the dawn of Easter. Yet as nothing thus far in 2021 has been “usual,” I was not surprised when my appointment for the COVID vaccination in a nearby town was scheduled for that day. Returning home with neither energy nor desire for housework, I reached for a book:The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, a translation made in 2010 from a previously little known first century Gospel written in Greek. It is thought to have been brought to the Languedoc in France (at that time Roman Gaul) from Alexandria in the early to middle part of the first century (thus showing it to be decades earlier than any of the four Gospels we know best).
The translator and commentator is Jehanne de Quillan, a woman with ties to a 12th Century Community in France whose members have guarded this treasure. In her commentary, de Quillan invites the reader to consider the question: “Who is the beloved disciple?” the one who lay back on the breast of Jesus as the disciples were seated for the Last Supper, the one to whom Jesus entrusted His mother as he was dying on the Cross?
It was not until the end of the second century that this “beloved disciple” became synonymous with the apostle John. De Quillan questions this designation, noting that for the Jewish people of that time, homophobia was as prevalent as in our own cultures. For a man to sit so intimately near to Jesus at the Last Supper would have been shocking.
And if it were John to whom Jesus entrusted his mother as he died, why is John not listed as present at the foot of the cross?
The Gospel of John 19: 25-27 tells us: Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,“Dear Woman here is your son.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
As de Quillan explains, the Greek word translated as “son” holds several layers of meaning to denote a relationship and may refer to either gender.
Yet the traditional interpretation has insisted it must be John to whom Jesus speaks, even though he is not mentioned as being present.
In The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, it is the Mother of Jesus and Mary Migdalah who, in accordance with Jewish law, anoint the body of Jesus immediately after the crucifixion, with the spices brought to them by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus.
Mary the Migdalah: artwork Sue Ellen Parkinson
In The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, the encounter of the Magdalene with Jesus on Easter Morning is very similar to the account in the Gospel of John. What’s different is that Mary upon her discovery of the empty tomb remains there alone.
The whole confusing incident of Mary leaving to tell Peter, of Peter and John racing to the tomb, then leaving again, is simply not there.
Here is howThe Gospel of the Beloved Companion tells of Easter Morning:
40:3 Now on the first day of the week, Miryam the Migdalah went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb and saw the stone taken away from the entrance
40:4 Stooping and looking in, she saw that the tomb was empty and the linen cloths scattered where the body had been laid.
Yet she did not enter in, but remained standing outside at the tomb, weeping. And hearing a noise, she turned around and saw a figure standing close by.
Because of her weeping, she did not know that it was Yeshua.
40:5 Then Yeshua said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” She supposing him to be the gardener,said to him, ”Sir, if you or another have carried him away, tell me where he is laid, and I will go and take him away.”
(As de Quillan comments: “She is in no doubt that she has the right to take his body, wherever it may be laid….we must examine the conventions of the first century to determine who would have such authority, such a right. The answer is quite obvious.” p. 172 )
Yeshua said to her, “Miryam.” She turned and, overcome with joy, said to him, “Rabbouni!”
40:6 Yeshua said to her, “Miryam, do not hold to me, for I am not of the flesh, yet neither am I one with the spirit. But rather go to my disciplesand tell them you have seen me, so that all may know that my words are true and that any who should choose to believe themand keep to my commandments will follow me on their last day.”
40:7 And the Migdalah therefore returned onto her own and there in that place were gathered Martha her sister, Eleazar her brother,whom Yeshua had restored to life, and Miryam, the Mother of Ya’akov, Yosef and Salome. With them also was Toma, who was called the twin;and Yosef of Arimathaea, who had asked Pilate for the body of Yeshua; and Nicodemus, who at first came to Yeshua by night, and who had brought spices for his burial.
40:8 Also there were the disciples Levi who some have called Mattithyahu; (Matthew) and Joanna; and the other Salome,to whom Yeshua had spoken at the Well of Ya-akov. The Migdalah told the disciples that she had seen Yeshua and that he had said these things to her.
And they knew the truth of her and were all filled with great joy and believed. (The Gospel of the Beloved Companion pp.169-70)
Jesus had told his apostles, “You will all be scattered…” That is what this Gospel shows, for of the eleven remaining apostles, only Matthew and Thomas were gathered with the other disciples in Mary’s home at Bethany.
Jehanne de Quillan concludes:
“So, one might ask, where does that leave us? Was the Gospel of the Beloved Companion the source document for what we have come to know as the Gospel of John?
….Was Miryam not only the Apostle to the apostles, but in fact, truly the first and the last apostle, the true Beloved Disciple, loyal to Yeshua from the beginning to the end, and known here as the Companion, Beloved of Yeshua, the Migdalah?
“My answer is simple: it is you, the reader who must decide. In the final analysis, it is your own heart that must be the adjudicator of this, and so many other questions…. .” (p. 194)
I encourage you, to read The Gospel of the Beloved Companion (Jehanne de Quillan, Editions Athara, 09000 Foix, Ariege, France, 2010)
My sister Patti’s cottage sits on a hillside thickly braided with pines and deciduous trees. It could be a fairy tale forest, but this is no time for tales. Sitting here on the deck we cannot see the sand shore, but gaze beyond the tops of trees to where Lake Huron shivers in silver light. It’s the Summer Solstice of 2014. If we look to our right up through the tallest branches, we see the sky blushing from soft blue to delicate pink, deepening to rose madder, mirroring our thoughts, fading with longest day into night.
But this is not where the story begins. Come back with me to early May, 2014, to Greece. Stand with me on stones that predate the Christian era in an open theatre-like space in Eleusis, twenty kilometres beyond Athens. The grey rocks around us sprout blood red poppies, fiercely alive, dancing in the cool breeze, nourished by no visible earth.
Our Greek guide, Calliope, tells us that this is where the initiates, who came here to take part in the annual religious rites known as the Eleusinian mysteries, would have gathered. Unlike us, they would have undergone a ritual cleansing in Athens before beginning the walk to Eleusis. Along the route, known as the Sacred Way, they would have paused to place offerings in tiny cavern-like openings in the rocky outcrops beside the road. Crowds would have gathered to watch their progress.
At Eleusis, there would have been a welcome, some explanation of the ritual that would follow, a telling, perhaps even a re-enactment, of the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter, corn goddess, giver of the earth’s abundance, weeps for her daughter, Persephone, who has been seized by Hades, god of the underworld. Her grief and rage at this loss are so terrible that she tells Zeus she will wither the earth’s food crops until he forces his brother god Hades to send Persephone back to her.
Only when the earth’s plants wither, threatening starvation, does Zeus give in. A truce is agreed upon: Hades will release Persephone for half of each year, but she must return again to the underworld. It is the myth of the seasons, of the maiden who returns after each barren winter bringing spring’s abundance.
Though the story has survived, the details of the ritual have never been discovered. The initiates who took part in what we know as the Eleusinian Mysteries were bound to secrecy under pain of death. The Mysteries began in Greece around the first millennium before Christ and continued, spreading into the Roman Empire, until the 4th Century of the Christian Era.
It is believed that the ritual, based on the Demeter /Persephone story, had a three-part theme: the descent (loss), the search and the ascent.
Following their arrival in Eleusis, the initiates would have rested, spent a day of fasting to honour the grief of Demeter. The ritual would follow.
Calliope points to the earth beneath our feet, telling us that the initiates would descend underground for the ritual. Its focus was the overcoming of any fear of death, though how this was enacted is unknown. But as the ritual was drawing to a close, light would have begun to seep upwards from the underground. Soon after that, the initiates would emerge, radiant with their experience.
After Calliope’s introduction, we move further into the site to an ancient cave, its dark mouth appearing to us like an opening to the underworld.
Here members of our group have been invited to enact the story of Demeter and Persephone. Peg Rubin, an actor of immense power, plays Demeter.
The day before our journey to Eleusis, Jean Houston had prepared us for the experience by speaking of the Greek understanding of the need to “die before you die”. As we travelled by bus, Jean led us in a visualization/meditation. We were invited to imagine ourselves entering the underworld, being clothed in earth, masked by earth, resting in death….then asking, “What are the aspects of myself that no longer serve me, serve life?” These we name and allow to die….
We remove the mask of earth that covers face and body. We emerge, freed to live more fully, more joyously, set free from the burden of those behaviours, those needs, those fears, that have kept us captive. We rise: quiet, composed, centred, unafraid, ready to love.
Eleusis is the first of many journeys into the myths, the wisdom, the mysteries of ancient Greece. As the days unfold, I come to know the truth of words I found during a Canadian Authors’ poetry workshop in Ottawa before I travelled to Greece.
This poem was composed of lines chosen at random from several different books of poetry.
Greek light startles
the warm appreciation of one being for another
every life long or short is a pilgrimage
under the wide and starry sky
sea salt scouring my body
old skins shed
kindled by the tangelo sun
ignite into life
On the long journeys across mainland Greece the poem unfolds for me like a prophecy, except for the “warm appreciation”…
As our bus moves with the surprising grace of a large elephant, skimming edges of cliffs that hover above olive groves and waters of an impossible turquoise, we pass the time creating poetry, reading it aloud to our companions over the microphone.
The young man with the young name, Josh, exudes the relaxed arrogance that only the young can carry off with charm. His poem is a mockery of the ancient archaeological sites, the stunning beauty, the fairy tale wonder that others have been praising.
I whisper to my companion: “That young man needs to be broken open!”
Ever-confident, Josh takes the mike the following day to chide us for our comments on his frequent cigarette breaks. Yes, he knows we care about him, but he’s serving notice that our advice will only deepen his determination to continue smoking.
When, on the third morning, Josh again takes the mike, I’m fuming without the help of cigarettes.
“I had a dream last night,” he begins. “A friend came into my dream, talking really fast. He was really excited, with something important he needed to tell me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
” When I woke up there was a text message. My friend had died overnight in an accident. Then I understood what he’d been trying to tell me: It’s so much easier on this side. All the pain, all the suffering is only while we are alive.But afterwards, everything is good.”
Greek. Light. Startles.
Later that morning, as we’re walking down the stony hillside path towards the ruins of the Temple of Athena, I encounter Josh. No words come to me as our eyes meet, so I reach out to hug him. He holds me with a gentle strength, as though I were the one needing comfort.
“It’s OK,” he says. “Really. I’m OK with this. It’s a gift.”
It’s not a text message but a phone call that wakens me in my home in the Ottawa Valley, the day following my return from Greece. My sister, my beloved Patti, has had a return of cancer. There is no medical hope. She has perhaps three months to live.
So that’s why I’m here with her on the deck of her cottage, her holy sacred place, on the Summer Solstice. Why we are caught up in the beauty of the sunset. Why we have so few words.
Patti speaks quietly.” I’m afraid. What is death like?”
I say, “Let me tell you about Josh, the young man I met on our Greece Tour.”
It hovers, the knowing that soon, with the rising of the full Paschal Moon on March 28th, it will be time to re-enter the Sacred Days of Holy Week and Passover.
For years, decades, I approached Holy Week with a kind of dread, knowing I must engage once more in the agony of Jesus, his sufferings, his death, followed by the long tomb-time of his absence , before I could even remember the truth of Resurrection….
I would get up during the night after the Holy Thursday Eucharist, to spend an hour in prayer, remembering Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, his friends asleep around him, as he faced the certitude of his coming death.
It was a Mystery Play, perhaps not unlike the ancient Greek and Roman Mystery Rituals, but the emotions were manufactured.The darkness I experienced through these intense feelings of grief and loss was real, as was the physical discomfort of fasting.
Yet some part of me knew it was play-acting: both the terrible loss of Good Friday and the exploding joy of Easter. Jesus IS risen and will never die again; the Christ is with us always.
Seven years ago, something shifted. I wakened in the deep heart of Holy Thursday night. Yet I was drawn in prayer, not to the Garden of Gethsemane, but to the earth herself, in agony, dying. I sat through that hour with her suffering.
Later, I came upon this lovely meditation by Susan Griffin which spoke to my heart:
As I go into the Earth, she pierces my heart. As I penetrate further, she unveils me. When I have reached her center, I am weeping openly.
I have known her all my life, yet she reveals stories to me, and these stories are revelations and I am transformed.
Each time I go to her, I am born like this. Her renewal washes over me endlessly, her wounds caress me.
I become aware of all that has come between us, the blindness, of something sleeping between us. Now my body reaches out to her.
They speak effortlessly, and I learn that at no instant does she fail me in her presence. She is as delicate as I am, I know her sentience,
I feel her pain and my own pain comes into me, and my own pain grows large and I grasp this pain with my hands,
and I open my mouth to this pain, I taste, I know and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst,
in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster. This earth is my sister, I love her daily grace,
her silent daring, and how loved I am, how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered,
all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget what she is to me, what I am to her. (Susan Griffin in The Body of Earth)
Since that time of awakening, I experience these Sacred Days of the Paschal Mystery, the Mystery of life/death/life that is at the Holy Heart of the Universe, in a new and deeper way. The suffering is not a remembrance of events in the life of Jesus, but rather a reawakening to the raw suffering, the unaccountable losses, the seeking for light and hope in darkness that is the Mystery Play of our lives, especially now in this year of 2021 on Planet Earth.
I wakened two days ago, as you did also, to the news of another mass shooting, ten lives snuffed out in a grocery store. No motive known for the young man who shot them….
Our Canadian news is revisiting the death a few years ago of a young Indigenous man who was shot by a farmer on whose property he was trespassing. The farmer was acquitted. The young man remains dead, his mother’s humiliation by the RCMP who investigated her son’s death only now coming to light.
These agonies rose in me that same morning as in a Sacred Dance Class we were invited to meditate on the Black Madonna… for the first time I really understood why we need a Sacred Feminine Presence that is more than sweetness and light, One who is also fierce, strong, capable of holding us in the darkness in which our lives are shrouded. The Dark Mother, Who was present in the very chaos in which our Universe was birthed, is strong enough to remain through eons of destruction and rebirth.
Statue of the Black Madonna in Chartres Cathedral, France
In the poetry of John O’Donohue we find words powerful enough to hold the agony as well as the ecstasy of the Paschal Mystery. In this poem I grasp the gift we’ve been given by Jesus in his suffering and death: the courage to endure the suffering within and around us.
“The Agony in the Garden”:
Whatever veil of mercy shrouds the dark
Wound that stops weeping in no one, cannot
Stop the torrent of night when it buries thought
And heart beneath the black tears of the earth.
Through scragged bush the moon discovers his face,
Dazed inside the sound of Gethsemane.
Subsiding under the weight of silence
That entombs the cry of his terrified prayer.
What light could endure the dark he entered?
The void that turns the mind into a ruin
Haunted by the tattered screeching of birds
Who nest deep in hunger that mocks all care.
Still he somehow stands in that nothingness;
Raising the chalice of kindness to bless.
(John O’Donohue in Conamara Blues)
May the Dark Mother hold each of us as we too stand in that nothingness, raising the chalice of kindness to bless.
( continuing our imaginal journey to Ireland where we meet Brigid)
In mid-morning, we walk from our lodgings in Kildare to the garden where we sat with Brigid on our first visit. She’s here already,seated beside the pool of water, expecting us. Her smile warms the air of this mid-March day. Following her lead,we breathe in the fragrance of earth, of violets, daffodils, foxglove, and trees whose young leaves are ready to burst outwards.
With a gesture of welcome, Brigid invites us to sit near her where the early grass softens the earth beside the pool.
“Today we need to speak of the equinox,” Brigid begins. “Do you know its meaning?”
A few of us exchange glances. Every child knows what equinox means, and yet Brigid waits, expecting a response.
“It means that day and night are of equal length after the short days and long dark nights of winter,” Mary responds, politely.
Brigid smiles. I have the uncomfortable feeling that she knows exactly what we’re thinking. “That’s a good answer, as far it goes,” she says now.
“But did you not understand our last conversation? You and I and all that lives upon our beautiful planet are part of her.
“Our lives, our bodies, our souls, our spirits are one with her rhythms, her seasons. Since this is so, what meaning does equinox hold for us?”
“Is it about balance?” Noreen ventures.
At this, Brigid smiles. Mischievously, I think. “Balance, yes. But balance of what?”
“Light and darkness,” I say, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I wonder what Brigid is up to, if she’s playing with us, trying to trip us up in our knowledge of the earth. Spurred by this thought, I rush on, “it’s the balance of light and darkness that shows us spring is coming. Longer days mean that the earth will soon be bursting with new life. Also,” I add this with some pride as I’ve only just learned it myself, “it’s the increase in daylight that draws the birds back from the south.”
Brigid appears unimpressed. “I don’t think you really understand about the equinox. You’re describing what you see around you.
“My question is about what’s happening within you.”
Suddenly a fox emerges from the bushes beyond the garden. It walks with soft steps, unswervingly, towards Brigid.
Though her back is to the fox, though she could not possibly see the delicate animal, Brigid stretches her hand towards the fox, calling out,
“Come, my friend. Meet some people who have a great deal to learn.”
Frozen in fear at the appearance of the fox, we watch in amazement as the small animal comes to sit, composed, peaceful, at Brigid’s feet.
“Your Celtic ancestors,” Brigid continues, as she strokes the fox’s fur with her hand, “like indigenous peoples everywhere, experienced time as circular. They danced to its rhythm: night gave birth to dawn and day blossomed before it waned into evening, back into night.
“These ancestors watched the cycles of the moon, the turning of the tides. The women noticed how the rhythms of their own bodies,their regular times of bleeding, followed the moon’s rhythms. No wonder they felt at home in the universe, embraced by the earth.
“Because they saw their lives as part of the great cycle of life, the Celtic people created a calendar that marked the seasons of the year, dividing the year into two major parts related to the sun’s light: giamos and samos. They celebrated eight festivals that were about 45 days apart.
“Because they understood that it is darkness that gives birth to light, their year opened with the Festival of Samhain, November 1st, when the dark days begin. These are the days of inwardness, receptivity, the time that came to be known as feminine. Here the pace slows, linear time recedes, the intuitive is honoured over the rational. With the Festival of Bealtaine, on May 1st, the bright masculine sun days begin, the samos time of outer activity when the seeds nourished through the dark days blossom into new life. The linear, analytic, rational way dominates once again.
“In the Celtic Calendar, the Spring Equinox occurs halfway between the Winter and Summer Solstices. It’s the festival just before Bealtaine, when the feminine season ends, and the masculine begins.
“Now can you see a deeper meaning for the equinox? It’s an invitation to find a new balance within our lives, within our cultures and throughout the planet, of these masculine and feminine energies that so often are in opposition. It’s a time to choose how we shall hold the values of the dark time of the goddess even as the bright active masculine takes over in our lives.
“How will you choose to honour the feminine intuitive gifts of the moon time in the days when the sun calls forth your logical, rational gifts?Will you make a space in these busier days for quiet reflection, for remembering your winter dreams, for poetry, music, drawing, dance or whatever nourishes your inward life? Will you seek a finer balance of work and recreation, of times with family and friends as well as times of solitude? Will you consider how the dance of opposites in your own life might flow in rhythm, even as it does in the Celtic Calendar?
“These are important questions, dear friends. I hope you will consider them until we meet here again.
“If we could enter into the ancient ones’ understanding of time, the rhythms of our lives would take on sacred meaning. Our times of inner darkness would hold the promise of a dawn of new joy. Our losses would be seen as invitations to embrace other gifts, our death as birth into a new as yet unimagined life.”
And with those words, Brigid is gone, her fox companion with her!
We are left here by the pool, thinking, wondering.
awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives