Mary, Companion in our Present Darkenss

Egypt. November 2008. With my co-travellers on this spiritual journey, led by Jean Houston, I am on the Island of Philae in the Nile River. As we stand crowded together in the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis, Jean is reading aloud from the writings of Lucius Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian whose tale, “The Golden Ass” I referred to in my first blog, “A Promise Born in Light”.

The hapless magician, Lucius having turned himself into an ass, cries out to Isis for help. Shining like the sun, she comes to him saying:
“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…shall the sun of your salvation rise….Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”

After the reading that day in the sanctuary of Isis, we are invited to call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine. I hear voice after voice calling out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to me, titles I’d learned as a child, and they refer to Mary. I listen: Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. I hear Jean’s voice, strong, certain: Mary in all her forms.

If you grew up Catholic in the days before the Second Vatican Council, Mary was at the very heart of your faith. You prayed the “Hail Mary” many times daily; you sang hymns to Mary as you walked in May processions carrying flowers to decorate her statue; in every trouble and doubt, in every dark moment of your own life, you turned to her as to a mother whose love for you was unconditional. You probably knew by heart the “Memorare”, a prayer to Mary that says, in part, “Remember…Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided…”

At the call of Pope John 23rd, 2600 Roman Catholic Bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960’s. Believing they were restoring a balance, they invited Mary to step from her throne, and guided her gently to a place among the faithful, the followers of her son, Jesus. The “excesses” of Marian devotion were curbed… and then what happened?

Over the past fifty years we have seen a burgeoning of interest in the “Sacred Feminine”; a recovery of ancient stories of the Goddess; archaeological finds that create renewed interest in the time when the Sacred One was honoured as a woman; an explosion of writing among theologians, historians, cultural storytellers, seeking to understand the power and presence of “Mary” in the Christian story. I will cite a few here: The Virgin by Geoffrey Ashe; Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak; Untie the Strong Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Truly Our Sister by Elizabeth Johnson.

I have a consuming interest in the many aspects of this mystery. What I glimpse is this: 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.

Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. Geoffrey Ashe’s theory is 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.

How it came about is less interesting to me than the reality that Mary became for us an opening to a loving feminine sacred presence. Or, put another way, a loving sacred feminine 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.
Over these darkening days as we descend to the longest night of the year at the Winter Solstice, Mary is our true companion in her own waiting, her uncertainty, the doubts of those who love her, the trust that sustains her while she opens Deeper into the ripple in her womb That encircles dark to become flesh and bone, as John O’Donohue has written.
This is profound mystery. For Mary. For 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 until we are ready to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”

The Womb of This Present Darkness

The call to awaken to the presence of Sophia comes at a time when much of our planet struggles with darkness. Live-streaming news gives us an immediate knowing of disasters, disease, wars, weather-related devastation that can be overwhelming.

Yet the greater the darkness, the greater is our awareness of the need for light, the deeper our appreciation for it, the more compelling our own call to be co-creators of light.

Our ancient ancestors, who knew almost nothing of events beyond their immediate homes, knew about the rhythms of the earth, the apparent movements of sun, moon and stars, the cycle of the seasons, with an accuracy of observation that fills us with awe. The early peoples of Ireland were so deeply attuned to the shifting balance of light and darkness that they could build a monument to catch the first rays of sunrise on the winter Solstice. The Newgrange mound in Ireland, predating the Egyptian Pyramids, receives the Solstice light through a tiny aperture above the threshold.

Like the Egyptians and other ancient peoples, the Celts wove their spirituality from the threads of light and darkness that shaped their lives. Their spiritual festivals moved through a seasonal cycle in harmony with the earth’s yearly dance, associating the bright sunlit days with masculine energy, the darker time with contemplative feminine energy. For the Celts, the days we are entering this week, days we name Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’, were one festival known as Samhain (Saw’ wane). These three days marked the year’s end with a celebration that served as a time-out before the new year began. The bright masculine season with its intense activity of planting, growing, harvesting was over. The quieter days of winter were ahead: “the time of darkness, the realm of the goddess where the feminine energy principle is experienced and the season of non-doing is initiated.” (Dolores Whelan: Ever Ancient, Ever New pp. 98-9) www.doloreswhelan.ie

We in the twenty-first century may still draw on this ancient wisdom to live in harmony with the earth as the Northern Hemisphere of our planet tilts away from the sun. We can welcome this time of darkness as a season of renewal when earth and humans rest. Our energy can be gathered inwards to support what is happening deep within the earth and deep within our souls. The energy gathered in this season will be used when the winter has passed and spring has brought new life to the land and the people.

We too can accept the invitation of Samhain to release whatever is not completed at this time, letting go of the light and the activity of sun-time, surrendering ourselves to the restful moon-time, the darkness of holy waiting. Living within the wisdom of the earth’s seasons, we move towards the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, embracing a journey of deep surrender.As these shorter days in autumn prepare us for the yearly plunge into winter’s darkness, we are entering into the sacred time of Sophia. Within her sacred cauldron, our lives and our desires for our planet find a place of gestation, a safe darkness where, as with the caterpillar in a chrysalis, the great work of transformation of our souls and of all of life can happen.

Sylvia Shaindel Senensky writes:

We are being called upon by the sorrowing and powerful Dark Feminine to know our own darkness and the profound richness of all dark places, even when they are laden with pain.  Through her we know the mystery of existence and the sacredness of the cycles of life.  We learn how important the destruction of the old ways is to the rebirth of the new.  When she steps into our lives and awakens us, we can be shattered to our core, and we know, as we see the tears streaming down her face, that she too is holding us in her compassionate and loving embrace.

 …. She is calling upon us, each in our way to do our inner work, to become her allies, to become the best human beings we know how to be; to allow our creativity, our compassion and our love to flow to ourselves and to all life forms on this planet….  Love attracts love.  If we flood our planet with loving and transformative energy, our actions will begin to mirror our feelings.  We will come home to ourselves. ( in “Healing and Empowering the Feminine” Chiron Publications, Wilmette Illinois 2003)

 Let us enjoy this sacred season, this womb-time, as we curl up near the fireside of our hearts. From Sophia’s cauldron, we shall emerge in springtime in an interdependent co-arising with the earth, knowing ourselves renewed in soul, body and spirit.

A Promise Born in Light Part Two

This is what I have learnt from my contact with the earth — the diaphany of the divine at the heart of a glowing universe, the divine radiating from the depths of matter a-flame.     Teilhard de Chardin

Restless today, unable to settle to any task, I walk outdoors. Surprised to find this day in late October warm, sunlit, lovely.139

Yesterday’s events in Ottawa are still stirring within me: unmixed feelings, understandings, reactions, slowly melding together into what is close to gratitude, even joy. Like the beauty of trees reflected in the Bonnechere River, the beauty of my country shines back through the ripples of the stone thrown into our peaceful existence. The stone sinks, forgotten. The river reflects what lasts.

Alone here by the river yesterday, I listened to the voices that came to me from CBC Radio. I heard Tom Allen on “Shift” offering comfort through the timeless beauty and strength of music: Beethoven and Samuel Barber blended with contemporary music about home. I turned to the news, heard voices that called into the Ottawa CBC Radio station. I heard reminders of what we value about our country; I heard compassion rather than anger; I heard gratitude for those nameless ones who rushed to help the fallen guard at the War Memorial; I heard of strangers reaching out to offer directions to safety when people were walking around the area unaware; I heard the good-humoured pride in the report that the Mounties who called people to move, stop, stay, added the so-Canadian word, “please”. I heard voice after calm voice resolve that one deranged/radicalized young man would not change our country. I heard the welcome reminder that Canadians were once peacekeepers, that we need to reclaim what we really value most, what best matches our national soul….

This morning, wakening to a day suddenly brilliant in autumn sunlight, I feel the return of life. Parliamentarians are in their places. Most telling, the Prime Minister crosses the floor of the House of Commons, reaches out to hug both leaders of opposing parties.
Yes, there are voices that call for reprisals, but there are many more that call for wisdom, calm, seeking to redress the deep causes of radicalization among our young.
I remember the tale of the Native elder whose grandson spoke of two wolves within him: one of fear and hatred, one of courage and love.
“Which one will win, Grandfather?” the boy asked.
“The one that you feed,” the elder answered.

Teilhard de Chardin, the twentieth century Jesuit paleontologist and mystic who intuitively saw that a cosmos in evolution revealed a God who calls us forward into a future full of hope, spoke of the universe as unfinished.

Neither scientist nor theologian, I am a storyteller. I know how a change in the story has power to alter and illuminate our lives. Changing the story that once shaped our lives changes everything. If we live in a story of a completed universe where once upon a perfect time our first parents, ecstatically happy in a garden of unimagined beauty, destroyed everything by sin, what have we to hope for? The best is already irretrievably lost. Under sentence of their guilt we can only struggle through our lives, seeking forgiveness, trusting in redemption…. The suffering around us will still speak to us of punishment for that first sin, and the burden of continuing to pay for it with our lives…. Despair and guilt are constant companions. Hope in that story rests only in release from the suffering of life into death.

But if we live the story as Teilhard saw it, seeing ourselves in an unfinished universe that is still coming into being, everything changes. In a cosmos that is still a work in progress, we are called to be co-creators, moving with the Love within the universe towards a future filled with hope. We know ourselves held in love by a God whose yearning for our happiness, our fullness of life, is greater even than our own.

Our human hearts long for joy, and we love to hear stories where suffering and struggle lead to happiness, to fulfillment, to love. The possibility that there could be peace, reconciliation, compassion, mercy and justice to an increasing degree on our planet is a profound incentive for us to work with all our energy for the growth of these values.

Yesterday we were offered a glimpse of what a future full of hope might look like, a future we grow towards with each act of courage, forgiveness, compassion and rootedness in deeply-cherished values.

A promise born in light that emerges out of darkness.

A Promise Born in Light

A most unlikely place to hide a promise. But here it lies. Within the writings of a little-known first century Roman, Lucius Apuleius, whose character, a hapless magician, turns himself into an ass. He cries to the Goddess for help. Suddenly, shining like the sun, she is there. She rescues him, refers to her many names, then makes this promise: I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing. Soon…shall the sun of your salvation rise…. Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”  

That darkness would envelop the sacred feminine presence, forgetting her many names, abandoning her temples, sending her into two millennia of  hiddenness…

Well, almost, but not quite.

The light of the feminine holy, like the Buried Mother Moon of the old English folk-tale, would find a way to break through. The Shekinah of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Sophia of the Book of Wisdom and the Gnostic Gospels, Mary with her wonderful names drawn from the beauty of the planet: Mystical Rose, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of the Pines, of the Lakes, of the Mountains, Madonna of the Rocks… would find her way into hearts ready to receive her light.

We have been born into the time of the great recovery of ancient wisdom from story, myth, legend, from sacred writings, poetry, and ritual, from the peoples of earth-honouring religions: American and Australian Aboriginals; the Ancient Egyptians; the Celts. Within these rediscovered traditions, we find the presence of a Sacred Mother, a womb of life who calls us to honour the earth and all her living systems, to honour ourselves, to honour our bodies which are part of the earth. She calls us to accept the wisdom of the circle of life: its rhythms of dawn to day to dark to day; of spring to summer to autumn to winter to spring; of birth to life to death to rebirth.  She calls us by our true name as she invites into the adventure of life in a time when each of us is needed to live fully.

She calls us into joy, through allurement to the hope, to the stunning beauty of a promise born in light. She reminds us that the universe herself is drawn, not through duty, despair, grim determination, but through allurement: the earth is allured to the sun, caught up into a dance of spinning wonder; the moon is allured to earth, circling her in ecstasy; the tides of the seas are allured to the moon, as are the cycles of women’s bodies. Each planet in our galaxy, like each of the galaxies of the universe, of the multiverse, twirls in a passionate dance of awe and delight.

Sophia calls us to awaken on this day which is being born from the womb of this present darkness. Her time is now.

For years, I have felt the call, have been gathering the stories, the poems, the music and dance required for this work. Today is the day of my soul’s awakening. I invite each one of you, called with me into this dance of allurement, to join with me. Together we will awaken the Sophia within, among us.

Today is the day I am accepting this life-task.

It took a powerful nudge.

Yesterday, my Community, the Grey Sisters of Pembroke held a ritual of song, of memory, of prayer and blessing as we said goodbye to the building that had served us since 1956. first as Motherhouse, later as a Spirituality Centre.  We said goodbye to the dedicated staff who had companioned us over the decades. Amid tears hugs, laughter, much conversation, we gathered for refreshments.

Afterwards, I lingered. I walked into the rooms where I spent my early years in formation as a Grey Sister. I visited the Chapel, recalling sacred moments of celebration, of prayer during retreat times, moments of searching, seeking, losing, finding. As I stood looking into the open door of the Chapel, ready to say “goodbye”, one moment stood out among the others.

August 2006. Our Chapel had just been renovated, the pews replaced with chairs, suited to a Spirituality Centre. One hundred and fifty people had gathered to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Community’s new beginning in Pembroke. We had invited Jean Houston and Peg Rubin to lead us in a weekend of “Rediscovering Fire.”

I had met Jean and Peg in the summer of 2005 at their Social Artistry session in Ashland, Oregon. I knew, as I took a crystal stone from the basket Jean was holding, that my life was about to become far more exciting.

On that August day a year later, I approached Jean as she stood ready to begin her session in the sanctuary of the Chapel.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve had a necklace made with the crystal you gave me.”

Without hesitation, Jean took the stone into her hand, saying, “May this be a reminder of all that needs to be done.”

I was wearing that necklace yesterday. I knew that memory was the one that would take me into the future.

A Promise Born in Light.

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives