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….

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….

By the Light of the Paschal Moon

Once there was, and there was not, a village where love prevailed. The people treated one another with kindness, respected the animals, birds, trees, plants, all living things contained within the village boundaries. Beyond its borders there were treacherous bogs and noisome swamps. These the people avoided, fearing the great black pools of bog water, the deceptive greenery of the marsh moss, the foul smelling liquid that squirted out should someone step upon it.

Though they would gladly have remained always in their village, at times it was necessary to cross the swamp whether to visit a friend or family member, to consult a lawyer or business associate, to seek mentoring from a poet, artist or musician. These journeys were best made in daylight, but if someone needed to cross the marsh in darkness, the light of the loving Mother Moon would guide the villager’s steps among the pools and marshes.

But on nights when she did not shine, evil creatures who dwelt in the depth of the swamp would emerge to harm any villager they could find.

Word of this treachery reached Mother Moon. Her heart was stirred with compassion for her beloved villagers. She decided she must come to earth to see for herself what was happening. When the dark of the month came, she wrapped herself in her dark cloak, carefully tucking inside the hood her bright nimbus of golden hair. She took advantage of a shooting star that carried her to the edge of the bog.

She walked carefully across the oozing ground, guided only by the light of her graceful white feet below her cloak, and by the starlight reflecting in the dark pools. She was almost at the edge of a great sucking bog hole when she tripped. She reached out to a bush to regain her footing, but its fierce branches wound themselves around her wrists and arms.

 

2020-04-06 22.21.02

The more she struggled to free herself, the more was she entrapped.

Just then, from across the swamp, she heard a cry for help. One of her beloved villagers, lost and afraid, was coming nearer to the flickering light reflected in the very black pool she herself had just avoided. How would she warn the man? Desperate to offer light, Mother Moon shook her head until her black hood slipped backwards. Her golden hair shone like a warning, a lighthouse in a stormy night sea. The evil creatures slithered away. The man, relieved to see them disappear, chose safer ground and hurried straight home.

Now Mother Moon struggled even harder to free herself. But all her efforts were in vain. At last her head bowed in exhaustion causing her dark hood to fall forward, snuffing the light of her hair.

At once, the evil creatures surged towards her, attacking her, biting, kicking, driving her deeper into the mud. When the first faint grey of dawn appeared, the evil ones found a heavy boulder. This they placed above her and slithered away.

Night after night came, and the new moon did not appear. Night-time without the moon’s light became a time of terror. Villagers were lost in the bog, and the evil creatures grew bolder, terrorizing the land. Everywhere there was suffering. People grew afraid of the darkness that swallowed the land each night.

Desperate, the villagers sought guidance from the wise woman who lived in the old mill at the edge of the village… She told them to take stones and hazel twigs with them to the marshes. They were to look for a large boulder close by a dark pool…

When they came upon the place, they glimpsed a small lip of light around the edge of the great stone. Together, men women and children placed their left shoulders against one side of the stone and pushed it over.

They looked down in wonder on the most beautiful face they had ever seen or imagined. She gazed back at them with immense love in her eyes. And as the fleeing creatures wailed in terror, vanishing forever, the moon rose into the sky bright and beautiful as ever on most nights.

And in the nights when she does not shine, the villagers stay home, gathering by their firesides. They tell their children the story of the loving Mother Moon who died for her people, and rose again.

(This old English folktale is adapted from Anita A. Johnston Eating in the Light of the Moon, Gurze Books, Carlsbad, California, 2000)

Sophia and the Paschal Mystery

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 “The Agony in the Garden”)

We are now in the sacred weeks when Christians re-enter the life-death-life mystery that leads to the Celebration of Easter.

This year, as COVID 19 makes its silent way through the countries of earth, we are entering a planetary passion play.

We know at a depth never before imagined that this mystery is at the heart of the universe, at the heart of life on our planet, in the deep heart of our own lives.

From its birth out of the womb of a dying star, through its daily cycle of day/dusk/ night/dawn, its yearly cycle of summer/autumn/ winter/spring, the earth teaches us to live within the paschal mystery.

Ancient peoples understood this. They wove their understanding of life/death/life into their mythologies: the Egyptian story of Osiris, whose severed body was put together piece by piece by his wife Isis, then reawakened allowing her to conceive their son Horus.

The Sumerians tell of the great queen Inanna who descended to the underworld to visit her sister Ereshkigal. There she was stripped of her royal robes and insignia, murdered by her sister, who then hung her lifeless body on a hook. Three days later, Inanna was restored to life, all her honour returned to her.

Demeter calls forth her daughter Persephone from the kingdom of the dead; Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysius return to life after being destroyed.

The people of Jesus’ time would have known these and other great myths of the Ancient Near East. Jean Houston tells us in Godseed (Quest Books, 1992): “In the Greco-Roman world, these acts of resurrection were celebrated in the Mystery Religions. These ecstatic forms of piety involved dramatic, highly-ritualized inward journeys of anguish, grief, loss, resurrection, redemption, joy and ecstasy.

The Mystery Religions provided alienated individuals lost in the nameless masses of the Roman Empire with an intimate environment and community of the saved, in which they counted as real persons and found a deeper identity.

Identifying with the God-man or the Goddess-woman of the mystery cult, the initiate died to the old self and was resurrected to personal transfiguration and eternal life.” (125-6)

What was so stunningly different in the Jesus story was that the mystery of life-death-life was incarnated in a historical person. The Resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. As Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen then our faith is in vain.”

In our lifetime, the explosion of new science shows us the life/death/mystery at the heart of the universe.

Like exploding stars, our lives are continuously being rebirthed into a deeper more joyous existence.

By allowing the death within ourselves of old habits, old mindsets and narrow ideas of who or what we may be, we open ourselves to the possibility of new life being birthed within us.

As Jesus told his friends, “You will do what I do. You will do even greater things”.

“Resurrection is about being pulsed into new patterns appropriate to our new time and place,” Jean Houston writes in Godseed.

For this to happen, we need to open in our deep core to “the Heart of existence and the Love that knows no limits. It is to allow for the Glory of Love to have its way with us, to encounter and surrender to That which is forever seeking us, and from this to conceive the Godseed”.

“The need for resurrection has increased in our time,” Jean continues. “We are living at the very edge of history, at a time when the whole planet is heading toward a global passion play, a planetary crucifixion.”

Yet “the longing with which we yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for us….the strength of that mutual longing can give us the evolutionary passion to roll away the stone, the stumbling blocks that keep us sealed away and dead to the renewal of life”. (Godseed pp.129-130)

The yearly miracle of spring awakens within us the confidence and joy that this same rebirth is ours to accept and to live.

The timing of the COVID 19 crisis  just as spring is about to begin in the Northern Hemisphere offers hope that we too may green our lives, our times, our planet:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age (Dylan Thomas)

Something to ponder in the presence of Sophia/ Wisdom:

Where in my life do I most experience the need for a rebirth?

What old habits and beliefs would I have to let die in order for this new life to be born?

What attitudes, behaviours, surprising newness have I noticed within and around me since the COVID 19 crisis arrived?  

How does knowing that the longing with which (I) yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for (me) make my life more joyful?

What would a resurrected life look like, feel like, for me? for those with whom my life is woven? for our planet?

May Sophia, the feminine presence of Sacred Wisdom, gently guide us as we, like Jesus, “stand in that nothingness … raising the chalice of kindness to bless” through this health crisis, through the death of what no longer serves us, personally and as a planet, into the joy of the rebirth for which our hearts yearn.

Sophia and Mary of Nazareth

I write this on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 2020 at a time when each of us is being called into a new planet-wide reality, invited to give our love, our trust, our assistance, our presence, (our respectful absence!) in a crisis unlike any we have experienced.

In this moment, we, like Mary of Nazareth, may feel astonished.

May we respond with the courage Mary showed to a request beyond anything she might have imagined.

Today, I travel back in time to my first encounter with Mary. I remember a day when I was perhaps eleven years old. Each afternoon, walking home from school, I passed our parish church. On this day, I was drawn to go inside.

I remember glancing at the marble statue of Mary, standing to the left side of the altar.

Her stone pale white face was shuttered, her eyes downcast. The statue radiated coldness. Though I did not understand what her title of “Virgin” signified, I associated the word with an absence of what I longed for most in my life: warmth, caring, love.

I turned my gaze away from the statue, noticed a small booklet on the bench where I was sitting. It contained the Scripture readings for the Sundays of each month, with reflections. On the inside front cover, someone had written of Mary, creatively presenting ideas in the form of a letter as though it had been written by her.I have now no memory of the letter’s content. Perhaps I did not even read it. I was transfixed by the words at the end, “Your Loving Mother Mary.”

 In that instant, my life shifted. A loving presence entered into my existence and has never left me.

As Jean Houston has written, “Whenever they move into our awareness, both personally and collectively, archetypes and the old and new stories that they bring with them announce a time of change and deepening.”

To grasp the true significance of Mary as Archetype, come with me now to the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis on the Island of Philae in the Nile River.

Crowded into a space never meant for a group as large as ours, stand here with the other travellers on this spiritual journey to Egypt, led by Jean Houston. Listen now to the words Jean is reading from the writings of Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian. In the story, a hapless magician named Lucius has cried out to the goddess for help. Isis responds.

The way the Sacred One identifies herself to Lucius may startle you:  I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names…

 Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing.

Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid.

Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.

After the reading, listen as someone suggests that we call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine.

Listen as voice after voice calls out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to you, titles you may have learned as a child. We knew them as part of a litany, composed in honour of Mary. Yet many of these titles were given thousands of years earlier to Isis:

Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory.  Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. Jean’s voice, strong, certain, proclaims: Mary in all her forms.

The human heart longs for a divine mothering presence. Ancient cultures honoured a feminine divine who over millennia was called by many names: Isis in Egypt; Inanna in Sumeria; Ishtar in Babylon; Athena, Hera and Demeter in Greece; Anu or Danu among the ancient Celts; Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in India; for the Kabbalists, Shekinah; for the gnostics, Sophia or Divine Wisdom.

In the early centuries of Christianity, Mary of Nazareth became an Archetype of a Loving Mother. How that came about is a luminous story.

Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. In his book The Virgin, Geoffrey Ashe writes of his theory that Mary’s gradual ascension in Christianity was not an initiative of Church Leadership, but rather a response to the hunger of the early Christians for a sacred feminine presence.

Mary became for Christianity a portal for that sacred presence. Or, put another way, a sacred presence responded to the cries of her people when they called her “Mary”, just as that presence had responded over the millennia to other names cried out in love or sorrow or desperate need.

And yet, and still, before any of that happened, Mary, a young woman living in Nazareth, a town despised in Israel, was already a luminous presence who made a choice to say “yes” to a call that held mystery, uncertainty, unimaginable risk, a call to mother a child with a love that would ask of her everything.

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

Here is how 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”? When our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?

The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of new life.

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”. Mary comes as Archetype to each one of us who carries the Holy within us, seeking a place of birth.

We walk the dark road, with Mary, in trust. We walk companioned by one who knows our struggles to maintain our trust in the face of inner doubts and outer calamity.

We walk with one who loves us and encourages us, prepares us, to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”

 

Sophia and the Web of Life

So much has altered since Covid 19 became a pandemic. The interconnectedness of all of life has moved from being a concept to becoming a lived experience. Though fraught with anxiety, our new reality is making way for an unprecedented coming together in co-operation across boundaries both geographic and political.  Many stories across the planet indicate that we are experiencing what may soon be a pandemic of generosity and kindness…

More surprising is the already visible effect on our wounded planet. Photos from space show a clearing in earth’s atmosphere, particularly above northern Italy. Astounded Venetians see fish, dolphins, white swans swimming in suddenly clear canal water. Bird song is being heard in Wuhan, China, in air cleansed of dense pollution.

Mother Earth Healing

Seeds of new relationships of respect and love between humans and other forms of life have been nurtured over decades by those who have been writing, teaching, and inviting a new relationship with the earth, with all that lives within, on and around her. It was the feminist theologians, writing in the last third of the twentieth century, who used their powerful intellects, their theological training, and their own experience to show that the “objective” masculine theological teachings, thought to apply to all humankind, actually reflected the masculine way to God.

The feminist theologians found the heart of the difference between the masculine and feminine ways to be within the perceived dualities found in Greek thought: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman. More than a separation, there found a perceived hierarchy. Spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman.

This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the human.

Through the writings of the feminist theologians, we learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the earth, of the body, of feelings, of sexuality.

At this time in the story of our planet Earth, this recovery is vital. The sacred presence of love lives within all of life, within the earth herself, within the creatures that walk, swim, fly, crawl upon and within her. Only this knowing can give us the courage and the strength we need for the work we are called to do with the earth as she heals from the ravages of our despoiling of her.

In the sixth chapter of her book, The Web of Life, thealogian Carol Christ writes compellingly of this call: To know ourselves as of this earth is to know our deep connection to all people and beings. All beings are interdependent in the web of life….We feel deeply within ourselves that we are part of all that is, but we must learn to speak of what we know. We know, too, that we participate fully in the earth’s cycles of birth, death, and regeneration…. The fundamental insight of connection to all beings in the web of life is experienced by children, poets, mystics, and indeed, I suspect, by all of us, though we may lack the language to express what we feel….(p. 113)

 Acknowledging the difficulty of speaking of this deep connection “in the face of criticism rooted in dualistic thinking”, Christ quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote of his “I-Thou” relation to a tree:

I contemplate a tree.

2020-02-01 tree at IONS on Brigid's Day

I can accept it as a picture: as rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.  

(Martin Buber, I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1970 pp. 58-59)

 In the writings of Susan Griffin we find a recognition of “This Earth” as intelligent and aware: 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. (Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her New York, Harper and Row, 1978 p. 219)  

A beautiful reweaving of dualities into wholeness flows from our embrace of Sophia. Once we take our first turning towards a Sacred Feminine Presence, welcoming her into our lives, change begins. In Rebirth of the Goddess (1997), Carol P. Christ writes of how turning towards the presence she names the Goddess altered her life.

If Goddess is an intelligent power that is fully embodied in the world, then the notion that divinity, nature and humanity are three totally distinct categories collapses. If Goddess as fully embodied intelligent love is the ground of all being, then it makes sense to speak of intelligence and love as rising out of the very nature of being and of all beings as intelligent and infused with love. Human intelligence and our capacity to love do not separate us from nature. Instead, everything we are arises from the nature of being, from our grounding in the earth. (p. 123)

Today’s poets and writers are expressing these thoughts in the midst of our new reality. Kitty O’Meara expresses the hope we hold in the grip of uncertainty, suffering and grief:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed”    ~Kitty O’Meara

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives