Who Is Skeleton Woman ?

Since hearing the story of Skeleton Woman we have been sitting in silence: you, me and the Storyteller. Now she breaks the silence, turns to me and asks, Do you remember how you first understood this story? How you invited others to understand it?

I feel a rush of embarrassment, remembering a time when I thought that any story must and ought and should be understood in the light of the Jesus story, the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection. I have learned since that the Jesus story is powerful for us because it is part of a more ancient story-well: Isis and Osiris, Inanna, Demeter and Persephone, stories that were at the heart of the ancient world’s mystery schools, especially in Egypt and in Greece. These ancient stories are in their own way a retelling of the oldest story we know: the story of the life/death/life of our planet earth, birthed from the life/death/life and exploding star.

Do you remember? she asks me again, mischief shining in her dark eyes, a smile softening the contours of her face. I see that she wants me to recall the moment when this story opened out for me, offering unimagined possibilities.

‘Yes, I remember,” I tell her now. “It was many years ago when I was just beginning my work in spiritual teaching. I had discovered that the ancient stories held wisdom and symbols that shed light on our relationship with the Holy. When I reflected on this story, absorbing the deep teachings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I saw myself in Skeleton Woman, in her bones, in her thirst, in her desire for love. So I cast in the role of the fisherman the best love of my life, the compassionate, untangling, tender Jesus.

“I cannot remember how many times I’d worked with the story in this way, always inviting people to see how Jesus comes into our lives to untangle us, to give us new life through his heart of flesh.

“One evening I was with a group of women and men in a parish in Southern Ontario. Though they had been a challenging group to begin with, on this, our third evening, I noticed a difference in the energy. As they were sharing their reflections on the story of Skeleton Woman in small groups, using the guiding questions I’d given them, I noticed hands gesticulating, heads shaking, nodding, the volume of voices rising, rising, especially in one group.

“I was elated. This is good, I thought. Now they are really connecting with the story.

“I invited their comments, their responses, asking my usual question, Who is God in this story?

Well, the speaker from one group began, I guess God is the fisherman. He went on to say why, prompted by my leading questions.

No, said a woman’s voice. As she stood, I saw with alarm the fire of debate in her eyes. God cannot be the fisherman in this story. God would never run from us in fear.

“It was her group that had been engaging in fierce discussion. I saw their heads nodding now in agreement as she spoke.

“Then something wonderful happened inside me. I understood!

You are right, I told her. For you have tested the story’s teaching against the truth of your own experience. And your experience tells you that the Holy One would never run from us. So, where is God in this story?

“As I waited for her response, I felt as though I’d just leapt from a plane, my parachute not yet open. I had no idea what the answer might be….

The Holy One is Skeleton Woman, the woman said. She went on to show brilliantly how the Holy One enters our life, invites our engagement with her, drinks our tears, takes her very flesh from our beating hearts, and finally becomes one with us, body to body, flesh to flesh, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.

“That woman, I learned later, was a feminist theologian. It was my first close encounter with a member of the species.

“Since that night, I have studied the writings of feminist theologians. On a few rare occasions, I have heard them teach, or give public lectures. I have grown in awe and appreciation of these women who, beginning in the last third of the twentieth century, applied their brilliant, trained intellects, their powerful intelligence, their embodied knowing, to the pursuit of God.

“As the woman who spoke that night did, the feminist theologians use their own experience as the fish gut to seek out the Holy, waiting, watching, in the deep waters of their own lives, as well as in the waters of Scripture and Tradition. They do not merely travel the sea of theology in a kayak. They plumb its depths. With fierce intelligence, with skills honed through years of work, they separate out the crustaceans that have clung to the ivory teeth of truth; they sort through the imbalances, the errors that have accumulated over centuries of masculine-only embellishments, masculine-only experience, masculine-only perceptions.

“I found that the feminine aspect of the Holy had been hurled from the cliffs of patriarchy, had been left abandoned at the bottom of the sea. Now, in the fullness of time, She is being fished out by our need of Her, our hunger for Her, for all that She represents.

“I learned that Sophia, the personification of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the feminine principle of God. More startlingly, I learned that Jesus may himself be the masculine embodiment of that feminine principle.”

I stop speaking, aware I have been waxing on.

The Storyteller smiles. Let’s take some time to think of this, she says.

The Tale of Skeleton Woman

Today as we enter the well, making our descent to the cavern of story, I wonder which tale awaits us. Of all the stories I’ve learned over the years, I can think of one that seems the most important. I am curious. Is that the one the Storyteller will choose for us today?

She is here waiting for us. As soon as you and I have greeted her and settled in, sitting as comfortably as we can on such a hard surface, I ask her, “What story have you chosen for us today?”

Which one would you choose? What is the story whose teaching you would most like to share with the ones who come here with you?

I do not hesitate. “I would choose the story that tells of love and the life-death-life cycle. I would choose Skeleton Woman.”

She smiles, her eyes alight with pleasure. It is one I love very much. It would have been my choice as well.

I feel pleased to have known this. Ridiculously pleased.

 

Shall we begin? she asks. And once more, as she does with the deepest, truest, most magical tales, she asks us to take deep, centering, relaxing breaths. She watches us, choosing her time to begin.

Then she stands, gracefully lifts the hem of her cloak, revealing silver-blue satin slippers. Ahhh! So this will be a tale told in dance.

I see you smile. It is a joy for you to watch the Storyteller dance.

I summon up my memories of the tale, for once more the task of narrating will fall to me.

The Storyteller is running, pursued by someone whom she looks at over her shoulder. She stops, a look of terror on her face, mimes a deep plunge.

Now she lies motionless. No, not quite motionless. She seems to be rocking gently, undulating.

“Her father has thrown her over a cliff,” I say. “She is lying on the floor of the sea, rocked by the water’s movement. She will lie here for thousands of years. Sea creatures will devour her flesh, her eyes. Crustaceans will lodge on her teeth, in her eye sockets, in the hollows of her bones.

Finally, eons later, an Inuit fisherman will come to that cove.”

Though the Storyteller continues to lie there, gently rocking, I see that one of her hands, with infinitesimal movements, is gesturing towards me, urging me to… what?

Oh.

It takes several heartbeats for me to grasp what she is asking. I am to play a role. I am to dance the fisherman.

I walk over, close to where she lies, not looking at her. I sit down, mime the rowing of a kayak. I pause, rest the oar across the small boat, unwind an imaginary fishing line, lower it into the sea. For a long while I sit there, lowering, raising, lowering the line.

I tug, feel a weight, smile broadly. Turn to find my net. When I turn back she is standing, slowly rising out of the water.

With terror in my eyes, I look. Look away. Begin to paddle wildly, moving across the cavern as though still sitting in my kayak. I look back. She is still there! I leap out of the boat, pull it to shore. I am running, carrying the fishing rod. I turn and she turns. I slow and she slows. We are now joined by the fishing line entangled in her bones! It is a wild erratic dance. A pas de deux.

I reach my snow house, bend low, dive in on my stomach. I lie there, panting, until finally, I can sit up, then stand. I lift my hands in praise to the Holy Ones who have rescued me. I do a little dance of gratitude. Then, removing flint from my sleeve, and some hairs from my head, I mime the lighting of a small flame. I reach over to my oil lamp, setting it alight.

And then I see her. Seated across from me, a tangle of limbs and bones, all askew.

I give one start of surprise, then mime a complete change of heart. Slowly, I move towards her. Gently, with immense care, I mime untangling my fishing line from her bones. As I so this, I am humming an old sweet song the fisherman’s mother once sang to him. I rest on my heels, smile at her as she sits there now, her bones in their proper order. I go to my sleeping ledge, pick up a bearskin, wrap her gently.

Meanwhile, Skeleton Woman does not move, but sits very still, watching me.

I rewind my fishing line, wipe the pole dry. I lie down on my sleeping ledge. I sleep.

With great care, Skeleton Woman slithers across the space between us. She bends to drink the tear that slides out from my closed eyes. She drinks like one who has a millennia-long thirst. She reaches into my chest, mimes the withdrawal of my heart. She drums on that heart, and with each drumbeat, looks to her body with wonder and joy, so that you also imagine that you see the beautiful flesh and hair, eyes, breasts, all the lovely aspects of living woman reappear.  She replaces my heart, lies down next to me, holding me in an embrace of love.

After the story ends, I go back to sit beside you. I sit as still as Skeleton Woman herself, remembering. This is the tale that illumined my own learning about love – when my wounds related to love were healed by a compassionate untangling, the shedding of tears, learning how to use the heart to drum up new life.

But that is my story. You have your own.

You may want to spend time now with the gifts, the insights, this ancient story has for you. Listen to the story beneath the story, the symbols it offers you.

We are – all three of us – silent for a long while.

Meeting the Ceile de Spouses of God

The story of the Seal Woman with its reminder to return to the homeplace within stirs a memory. A large seal makes her way up the cement path that leads from the sea to the dock. I gaze at her and she holds my gaze. I have just disembarked from the ferry that makes its way between the islands of Mull and Iona. It is March 2010, and I am just returning from the sacred storied island of Iona. I came here with the encouragement of Fionntulach, leader of the Ceile de, an ancient order that began in Ireland in the early years of Christianity.

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Two days earlier in Edinburgh, I had met Fionntulach at the city’s annual Interfaith Festival. Over an evening and through the following day, I listened as Fionntulach taught through stories, songs, dance and ritual. I learned that a remarkable change happened among the Druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic religion in Ireland, somewhere around the time of the birth of Christ. There arose among the Druids a group who became known as the Strangers. They spoke out against the ostentations, the warlike behaviour that had characterized the Celts for centuries. They dressed simply in linen, wandered through Ireland, seeking hospitality wherever they were, teaching a new consciousness. They told stories of a Holy One who would be born of a Virgin, One who would initiate a new time of peace and love. These Druids, who separated themselves from the others through their belief in one God of Love, grew into what became the Ceile de. As spouses of God, they married the inner mysterious force within themselves, dedicating their lives to working for God.

Before the early Christian missionaries devised the Ogham writing, its simple lines and strokes based on the Latin alphabet, the Celts kept no written records so dates are hard to ascertain. But it seems that the appearance of these Strangers was either just before or just after the Birth of Christ. Though the fifth century saint, Patrick, has long been honoured as the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it now seems that the new faith may have arrived as early as the first century. And when these first Christian travellers spoke of a Holy One, born of a Virgin, preaching love, the Celts recognised the tale told by the Strangers. This is why the coming of Christianity to Ireland was without bloodshed, with “nary a martyr” as the old tales say.

The ancient order of the Ceile de has endured since the early centuries of Christian Ireland. Fionntulach’s life is devoted to restoring its teachings as well as the ancient practice of inviting others into a form of membership in the Order. There are small associate Ceile de groups forming now in the British Isles and in North America.

When Fionntulach herself discovered the Ceile de, its remaining members were elderly. Today only Fionntulach and Mary, who was with her Edinburgh, continue to travel and teach. In the long tradition, the order has had no fixed abode, (Mary and Fionntulach each live in their own small cottage in Scotland), no written rule, no dogma. The early members would choose a hut in the woods. Others would gather around them. They were known as “people of the land”, a community gathered by the vision of a founder around the transformative power of love, the love of God “too big for the head to understand, but not too big for the heart” Fionntulach explains. The only rule of the Ceile de is “Listen to and obey the Christ in your heart”.

“Listen to your own heart” cancels any other rules. But if you can’t trust your own heart, find a soul friend, an “anam cara” who can help. Fionntulach told us that her own anam cara was a member of the Ceile de in Ireland. Each time she went to see him, she felt his spirit at the end of the road that led to his house, for it had extended that far.

The last Ceile de Monastery closed in Scotland in the twelfth century, and earlier than that in Ireland. As the Roman Church gained ascendancy over the Celtic, the Ceile de were viewed as “heretical”. Members were told to either join a Monastic Order of the Roman Church, the Benedictines or the Augustinians, or to renounce their spirituality. Fionntulach said most were wise enough to leave and quietly maintain their Ceile de Spirituality.

Pre-Christian mythology among the Celts tells of an invisible god who becomes visible in the feminine, able to be touched with the senses. In one myth a god who wanted to know itself divided into invisible and matter/Mater (universe, earth, body). So the Christian story of an invisible Father and a visible mother (Mary) birthing the Christ made sense to the Celts: Christ, born of a heavenly Father and an earthly Mother, represents perfect balance. Fionntulach spoke of the need to find a balance in our relationship with God, who is both transcendent Father and immanent Mother.

The “Journey Prayer” from Sacred Chants of the Ceile de is a sacred movement that Fionntulach led for us.

We move in a circle, hands over heart, then open out to love, walking on the earth that knows and remembers us, making with our arms a waving motion as we integrate the dualities: light and dark, spirit and matter, masculine and feminine. Then we reach to heaven, draw it to earth, give birth, and honour the child born of the dualities.

The words we sang are these: Oh God, bless every step that I am taking and bless the ground beneath my feet.

In a few days’ time, the blessing of the Journey Prayer would carry me to the Island of Iona.

On the Island of Iona

Encouraged by Fionntulach, I set out to see Iona. Columba and six companions came here by coracle from Ireland in the sixth century.Here on this ill- tempered North Atlantic island, they built a Celtic Monastery. Here the magnificently illustrated text of the four Gospels, known as the Book of the Kells, was begun, perhaps as early as the seventh century.

I reach Iona in the mid-afternoon, having travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow, then on to Oban by train, and to the Island of Mull on a large ferry. Some dozen young people sprouting backpacks, speaking a cacophony of European languages, are on their way to Iona. One of their number, from Toronto, tells me that the Iona Monastery has a programme inviting volunteers to spend time in service and prayer. After the ferry docks at Mull, it takes another hour to cross the breadth of the island by bus before we reach the dock and the much smaller ferry to the holy island. There, guided by a map of Iona, I walk along dirt roads to the B&B I’ve booked through the internet.

After I settle into my small room on this sheep farm, my hostess points out the road that leads to the monastery. Walking towards it, I recall how the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century replanted the early Celtic Monasteries of the British Isles with those of the Church of Rome. Following the Reformation, Iona’s monastery lay in ruins until a priest of the Church of Scotland, following his heart and his dreams, set about rebuilding it in the mid-twentieth century. As well as hiring local labourers, he used the sweat and toil of young men who wanted to be priests, teaching them to work side by side with those whom they would one day serve as spiritual guides.

Now this monastery is known around the world, sending out hymnals and books of prayer to nourish a virtual Iona Community drawn into its circle of faith, drawing young people from across Europe and North America for a time of work and prayer.

I explore the grassy grounds, soggy with recent rain, looking out at the wild sea that licks its shores. I visit the immense chapel, still being restored to its former beauty, try to hear, to see, the black-robed monks of past centuries chanting prayers that lifted beyond the lofty ceiling. I decide to return for Evening Prayer.

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Walking back to the B&B, I pause before a ruin. Collapsed stone walls offer support to trailing vines. Clusters of early blooming spring flowers, in delicate shades of pink and yellow, look up in greeting from within carefully-tended beds. Small signs on the grass, or within the remains of crumbling stone walls, name the long-vanished rooms: Chapter Room, Refectory, Sacristy, Chapel. A larger sign reveals that this is a former Augustinian Nunnery, dating from the same period as the Benedictine Abbey down the road. Names of some of the Abbesses are inscribed on a stone monument.
No one has yet felt the call to rebuild this. Instead, the sun has blessed the earth and drawn forth soft grasses. I am gazing at the ruin of the feminine heart of Christianity.

I am not the first to see this this place as metaphor, nor am I the only one who feels a peace, a longing to remain in this embrace. There are several other visitors here today, standing, sitting, walking among these sacred ruins. Perhaps they too are listening for the ancient melodies of the sung Vespers. And yet it is utterly still here. A singing silence.

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Later that evening, I am in the small candle-lit Chapel of St. Michael on the monastery grounds. In the choir stalls that face each other across the length of the room, to the left and right of an altar and a reading stand, I recognize the young people I met on the ferry. The prayer feels sacred, led by a woman and a musician who are part of the Iona community. There is a Gospel Reading, a Vespers of psalms and music. I join in the responses, reading from pages illumined only by candles. We pray silently for healing, our own and that of others whom we know and love. A candle is passed from person to person, as the community joins its prayer to that in the heart of each one in turn.

Following the Evening Prayer, I ask about a taxi to take me back to the B&B. “Don’t do that,” one of the young volunteers says, “you’ll be perfectly safe walking anywhere on Iona and the starlight is magical.”

Guided by a small flashlight, my eyesight sharpens in the Phrygian darkness. The stars in their rich and varied patterns, have a different orientation, subtly shifted from the way they appear above my home in the Ottawa Valley.

Suddenly, I feel accompanied. My thoughts are filled with Columba and his companions. As I draw near to the ruined nunnery, I focus on the women who once lived here. I listen to the sea, as if surges upon the shore, wondering about their lives. I trust that they knew how to find their own way to the deep homeplace within. I trust that they knew, on this lonely, often bitterly cold island, that they were held in love. Did they know the wisdom of the Ceile de, the way to seek the Christ within, to listen for the voice of love that they might be guided? Or was Celtic wisdom long vanished by the time they came here, buried under a Rule of Life attributed to St. Augustine? I hope for the former. I fear the latter. How can I know?

In the morning, after a full hot breakfast, with eggs from the farm’s own hens, I pack up my bag, set out for the shore. Fionntulach has told me that her favourite spot on Iona is a place called White Strands. I find it after crossing a farmer’s field, where I am gazed at, with weary disinterest, by cows and sheep. A long stretch of white sand, glistening in the uncertain sunlight, invites a solitary walk, offering memories of long ago walkers. Columba must have walked here. I doubt that Augustine’s nuns would have been permitted such freedom.
I sit on a flat rock, gazing out over the sea.

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It’s time to walk back towards the ferry, to begin the long journey back to Edinburgh.

And a seal crawls out of the sea to offer greetings.

The Deep Homeplace Part Two

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The Storyteller has just danced for us the ancient tale of the Seal Woman, her son, and their journey to the deep homeplace. She has invited us to take time to reflect on what the story awakens in our own lives.
Now, after a time of quiet, I ask her, “Why did you say that this story is about the deep homeplace, the place where the Beloved dwells within?”

The Storyteller answers: Think about the Seal Woman, about her longing for her sealskin. She needed it for her return to the homeplace. She knew that if she did not return there, she would die. It is so with you as well.

There is a deep homeplace hidden in the depths of your own soul where all that you are is held in love by the Beloved. You need to return there often, but most of all when your sight darkens, when you limp rather than dance. Recognize these signs as calls to home. Then go. At whatever cost, leave, for you must leave, even those who insist that you stay. Find your own true centre and allow yourself to rest in the embrace of love. Know that this is a matter of life or death to you.

Her words surprise, even shock, me. Do you also feel that?
“Since I’ve been a small child,” I tell the Storyteller now, “I’ve been taught that I must care for others. When people need me, call out to me, rage at me because of their need, how am I to leave them?”

That is above all when you must leave. Love and need are irreconcilable. The husband raged, broke his promise. He showed himself to be one who did not love. But the boy, who loved his mother truly, returned her sealskin to her, even though he knew what must follow.

“The Seal Woman never returned from the deep homeplace, “I say to her. “Could I go to the homeplace for rest, for the healing of love, then return to those who need me?”

Understand the mystery of story. The child whom the woman returned to the shore was her own spirit. Did you not hear her say, “I will breathe into your lungs a wind for the singing of your songs”? A woman’s spirit is the part of herself she sends to the outer world as drummer, as dancer, as storyteller, as poet, as singer, as healer, as soul friend. But to do this, she must keep her own soul nourished by love in the inner homeplace. It requires of her a balance, a sacred dance, between the topside and underside worlds of her life.

She smiles at us, asks the question that I want to ask….
So, who am I in this story? Not the fisherman who, within a woman’s psyche, always lurks, waiting for a chance to steal her Soulskin, driving her to overwork, demanding that she give until her soul and spirit are raw. But I am the Old One who calls her home when it is time. I am the Child within her who hears that call and answers, giving her what she needs to return home, if she will listen and receive. And I am the Woman who cries out inside you, “I must have what belongs to me”.

I am in the story in another way also. Can you guess where?

This is difficult, for she has already named each character. Then suddenly I know.
“You are the homeplace. You are the One who waits to receive us, body, soul, mind and spirit, into your heart of love when we feel the call to return home.”

She does not reply, but I know from her eyes that I have discovered another of her identities. She looks now at you.

Where is the deep homeplace where you go when your soul cries out for nurturing?
Do you recognise the child within you who is often the first to notice your need to return home? The child within hears the call of the Old Wise One, for a child’s ears are quick to hear the Holy. Do you follow the child’s promptings or do you tell that child to go away because you are too busy to listen?

When have you known the call to the homeplace?

After you have been restored and nourished there, what is the gift your spirit brings to the shore?

I watch as you ponder these questions. Though I hear no words, I can tell that you and the Storyteller are deep in conversation. I wait until I can see by your expression that you’ve said all you need to say for now. Then I ask her another question that rises in me.

“What is the meaning of the Seal Woman’s words, ‘Only touch what I have touched, my firesticks, my knife, my carvings of sea creatures’?”

The Seal Woman is instructing her son in wisdom. His work, which is really the work of her deep spirit, will require the firesticks of passionate engagement, the wisdom of knowing when it is time to cut away excess, to cut free of entanglements. The carvings hold the memory of the deep sea, true homeplace of his mother, of his own soul.

“Is there anything more you have to teach us today?” I ask her.

Only the need to remember the Seal Mother’s words, for they are my words to you, beloved ones: I am always with you. Call out to me, and I shall breathe into your soul a wind for the singing of your songs.

She looks now directly at you. I know she is asking if you have understood, though she speaks no word that I can hear. I see you smile. And she is gone.

We must make our way back to the topside world now, you and I. She will not return today.

The Story of the Deep Homeplace

Come with me again to the well of stories on the Hill of Tara. Remember the ritual. Breathe deeply. Stay focussed on the deep desires of your heart. Remove your shoes. Now reach for a solid handhold among the stones on the inner wall of the well, close to the top. Let your body drop into the water, waist deep, searching with your toes for a foothold below. Let go. Sink. Down, down into the cool water, a welcome blessing on this warm spring day. Drift downwards, and notice that here you can breathe easily. Wait for the opening in the wall of the well, let the water carry you through it until with a gush and a rush you are in the pool within the cavern. Climb out of the water onto the rock surface. Notice that you are entirely dry, as dry as the rocks themselves.

Just over there, see where the Storyteller awaits us. Your purpose and desire must have been strong to have drawn her here so quickly. Greet her in whatever way seems best to you.
Now I speak to the Storyteller, reminding her of her promise: Before we left you after the story of the Stolen Bairn, you promised us a tale about the homeplace where the Beloved dwells within us. Will you tell us that tale now? 

For answer, she speaks no word. Instead, with her gaze upon us, her eyes alight as though with some great secret, she stands. Slowly, gracefully, she extends one slippered foot from beneath the hem of her robe. She begins to dance.
For the length of several heartbeats we watch her, astonished, utterly perplexed. What is she doing? And why?

You are the one who first understands her intent. You whisper to me, “I think she is going to dance the story, like the performers at Siamsa Tire who danced the Children of Lir.”

It’s true. I see now the graceful dance, the joy of her body as it turns and bows and flows to unheard music. But how shall we follow this story? There are no programme notes, there is no singer to hint at the plot through the rise and fall of his song in melodious, if, to us, incomprehensible, Irish.

Suddenly the dancing stops. A look of terror, of unbearable loss, crosses her lovely face, and we watch as she searches desperately for something, searching low on the ground, turning round and around and …. I know!

I whisper to you.It’s the tale of the Seal Woman and her son! I know it well. I shall tell it to you as she dances it.

But now the Storyteller’s body stiffens, assumes the aspect of a man who swaggers forth, bows, extends his hands…

This is the fisherman, I tell you. He has stolen the woman’s sealskin as she danced on the rock in the moonlight. Now he is asking her to marry him, promising he will return her sealskin in seven years’ time. See how unhappy she looks at this offer. For she is of the place beneath. Her homeplace is the deep sea and she cannot return there without her sealskin. Yet she sees that she has no choice. She will have to go with him

We continue to watch this dance of grace. We watch the Seal Woman embrace her newborn son, dance with him, tell him stories. Now we see her slow her dance, see her stumble, limp, move awkwardly with hands outstretched as though she is growing blind. We see her pleading, begging, kneeling before someone as though in supplication. She lifts her hands, holds out seven fingers to remind him of his promise to return her sealskin in seven years’ time.

The Storyteller assumes the stance of the fisherman who shakes his head in refusal, once, twice, three times, before storming off in a rage.

Now she makes herself small, curled up like a child asleep. Suddenly the child sits up, alert, listening.
The Old Seal is calling from the sea, I tell you. It is time for the child to seek for his mother’s Sealskin.

Still dancing the role of the child, she runs off, returning with something that the boy carries behind him like a banner!

Now dancing the Seal Mother’s part, she begins to climb into her sealskin. She looks at her child with immense love, takes his face between her hands, breathes into his open mouth three times. Then she lifts him into her arms, and runs …. look! She is poised to dive into the sea, her homeplace, still carrying her son under one arm.

Our Storyteller is miming grace, a swimming dance of wholeness, restored health and well-being. She is joyously swimming with her son in the deep homeplace. She smiles at someone. That is the Old Seal who is her father, the boy’s grandfather, I say.

We see her mime a swim upwards, with her son under her arm. With care, with love, she sets him down on the shore.

I remember from the tale that the moon lights them both as she embraces her son for the last time, I tell you. And I know her words to him by heart: 

I am always with you.
Only touch what I have touched,
My carving knife,
the sea creatures I made for you,
My firesticks,
And I will breathe into your lungs
A wind for the singing of your songs.

We watch as she dives again under the water, returning to her home in the sea.

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The tale goes on to say that the boy became in his time a great drummer and singer and storyteller. People said it was because he had survived swimming to the deep homeplace of the seals, returning unharmed.

The Storyteller pauses, sits down to rest after the dance.

You and I both need time to draw her tale into our souls…

Opening to the Wisdom of the Story

The young woman has created three gifts of incomparable beauty with which to bargain. Now she sets out for the Sidhean:

By late morning, she has found the doorway in the hillside, although it is almost entirely hidden by overhanging boughs. She finds a hiding place nearby in a cluster of hazelnut bushes, and waits. And waits. And waits.

By late afternoon, her patience is rewarded. A tall woman whose pointed ears and eyes set slantwise in her narrow face mark her clearly as one of the Sidh, is hurrying along towards the hidden door. A latecomer.

The young woman stands quickly, noiselessly. She holds the harp under her arm, slides the cloak around her shoulders to conceal the harp, steps forward directly into the path of the faery woman.

At first there is shock, then anger on the faery’s face. “How dare you, a mortal woman, to come to this place?”

But the young woman is standing just where the sun’s light can catch the glints of gold in the embroidery on the bottom of the cloak. Slowly she turns, casting a spell of loveliness that sucks the very breath out of the Sidh woman.

It takes only a moment for the bargain to be struck.
“Very well. Give me the cloak and you may enter the Sidhean.”

But the young woman is wise. “No. Allow me inside and then you may have the cloak.”

And such is the splendour of the faery woman as she preens herself in the white cloak that no one even notices the mortal woman who enters the great hall of meeting at her side. At the front of the hall, the newly-elected King of the Sidh sits on a great throne carved from a mighty oak tree entirely.

The mortal woman lifts her harp, moves closer to the throne, plays a few notes of such unbearable sweetness that the whole assembly is struck silent.

The King at last speaks to her. “You have a fine harp there, mortal woman, but it wants tuning. Bring it here to me, and I shall tune it for you.”

“No,” she replies. “I have tuned it myself and it suits me well.” She begins to play a melody of such love and longing for her son that the king himself, seated on his throne, weeps.

“Bring that harp here, mortal woman. I should like to buy it.”

“The harp is not for sale,” she says, now playing another darker melody, one in which she pours forth her love for her dead husband as well as for her lost son.

The King can stand no more. He gestures to his servants, whispers something, sends them out of the room. They return, each carrying a great oak barrel. These they empty in front of the mortal woman, one filled with gold pieces, the other with precious jewels: rubies, emeralds, garnets, diamonds, amethysts, sapphires.

But the mortal woman does not even glance down at what is heaped before her. She holds the King’s gaze steadily. “You have here a mortal bairn. Him and him only will I accept in exchange for my harp.”

The King gasps. He has plans for that bairn… then the harp once more sings, and he has no strength to resist. He gives the order to a servant who vanishes, returning in a moment, carrying a baby about one year old, whose eyes are the blue of the night skies, whose hair flames like the setting sun. The bairn has eyes only for his mother, reaching out his arms to her. She allows a servant to take the harp from her hands as she reaches out to receive her child.

At once the harp begins to sing in the hands of the King and such is the sweetness of the music that no one even notices the mortal woman as she walks out of the Sidhean, clutching her child to her heart.

There is always a moment of complete stillness after the Storyteller ends her tale. The stillness allows the story to settle in our hearts, allows us time to notice what it has brought us, for every story holds a gift. Every telling of a tale, no matter how often we may have heard it, brings a fresh gift.
As the silence deepens, I see that you have been touched by this story. I wait longer, giving you time to absorb it, to sense the gift it brings you…….

I see that she is turning her gaze to you. She asks you now:

What gift has the story brought to you?

Take time to answer her questions. I’ll sit near and listen.

What does it teach about the desires of our heart, our deep longings?
What are the lessons related to time, finding the right moment, the long waiting for that moment?
Where do we seek for the resources we need to barter for our heart’s desire?
Who might help us on our journey as we seek?
What does the story say about persons or places or treasures that invite us to be satisfied with something less than our deep heart’s longing?
How might your life change, from this moment, if you choose to honour the deepest longing of your heart?

When I see that the Storyteller has finished her questioning of you, I ask her the question that has been stirring inside me since hearing this story again.
“So many women fear and distrust their own desires, even fear their own bodies in which these desires dwell. What would you say to them?”

Women need to know that they are profoundly loved, that every last part of their being is held in love. My friend, Symeon the New Theologian, from the tenth century of this present era, has words to reflect upon, to take in. 

…let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply
For if we genuinely love him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body…………
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
we awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Remember these words always. Waken as the Beloved each day. Live as the Beloved. See that this will change everything.
When you return, I’ll tell you a story of the deep homeplace where the Beloved dwells within you.

Suddenly she is gone. I see the surprise on your face, but that is her way. We’ll return now to the upper world the way we came. We’ll come back another day for another story.

References: “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh” is adapted from Kathleen Ragan “Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters”  W.W. Norton and Company, New York, London, 1998

“We Awaken in Christ’s Body” by Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) translation Stephen Mitchell in “The Enlightened Heart” Harper and Row, New York 1989

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives