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

Preparing to Bargain with the Sidh

We left the young woman among the gypsies, waiting for the time when she might return to the old one.
Now, the Storyteller continues her tale:

On the seventh evening of the encampment, she makes her way back to the cailleach’s fire. Once more the old one gestures her to sit, takes her hand into both of her own.
“Here is what I have thought about. The Sidh have a great love of beautiful things. Yet, for all their cleverness, they are utterly without any skill to create beauty. So they must either barter or steal lovely things. If you could find or make something of incomparable beauty, you could perhaps barter it in exchange for your bairn.”
“But how will I gain entrance to the Sidhean?”

“Ah,” says the cailleach, “for that too you’ll need to barter something. That is all I can tell you, but I shall give you a blessing of protection before we part.”

The old one places her ancient knobby hands on the young woman’s head, saying, “I bless you with protection from any harm that might come to you from fire and water, earth and air. May the Holy One go with you.”

So they part, and that night the young woman falls into a deep and dreamless sleep. When she wakens, the gypsy encampment and all her merry friends are gone. She is alone. Entirely.

For a long, long while, she sits on the bare ground, unable to move, not knowing what to do or how she shall ever find her child. The morning swells to midday, exhales into evening and still she sits. Empty of purpose. Empty of guidance.

Then, like a slow return of the tide, knowing rises within her. Clarity. Focus.
“I must either find or create two things of incomparable beauty.” Her mind opens up paths of memory and she recalls the most beautiful things she’s ever heard of. She remembers two that outshine all others: the golden harp of Wrad and the white cloak of Nechtan.

She smiles. She knows now what she must do. She sleeps.

As soon as dawn touches the sky, she is awake. She drinks pure water from the brook beside the encampment, and sets off walking towards the sea. 

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By midday, she is scrabbling over the rocks by the shore, collecting in her apron the tufts of eider down left behind by the ducks. Because of the old gypsy’s blessing, the fire of the sun does not burn her fair flesh, the rocks on which she walks do not cut her feet, the roiling waves do not come too close to her and the winds do her no harm. When her apron is full of the soft white down, she chooses a large flat rock on the shore, sits down and begins to weave.

With careful fingers she rolls the soft down into thread, weaves the thread to form a cloak. When it is finished, it is as if a white cloud has fallen from the sky. She chooses a sharp rock, cuts off a strand of her red-gold hair. Some of the hair she carefully hides beneath a stone. The rest she uses to weave a pattern into the hem of the cloak. Fruit and flowers and leaves appear, all burnished gold. When the weaving is complete, she gently folds the cloak, hides it under a gorse bush, begins walking slowly along the rocky shoreline, seeking what she needs.

It is several hours later, the sun already a purple pink memory, when she finds at last the backbone of a great fish. It is strong, supple and perfectly shaped to form the frame of her harp. Joyfully, she hurries back to the rock where she wove the cloak, recovers the remaining lengths of her hair, securing each, one by one, to both sides of the frame. With delicate strength she tightens the red gold strands, testing for resonance.

At last she takes the harp into both hands. She plays a few chords of such aching sweetness that the birds themselves pause in their flight across the sky to listen.
Exhausted, she lies down in the shelter of a large rock and sleeps.

At dawn she wakens, carefully places the white cloak over her left arm, picks up the harp in her right hand, sets out for the Sidhean. With the gypsy woman’s directions clear in her memory, she leaves the shore, and begins to walk towards the deep oak woods on the far horizon. (to be continued…)

On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

The Storyteller continues her tale. We wonder whether Elspeth’s heart which speaks of dread, of grief, tells true.

As soon as the morning light awakens them both, the younger woman cries out in longing and despair. “My bairn! My bairn! Are the men returned yet? Have they found him?”

Before Elspeth can answer, Michael comes in the door. His expression of defeat, of sorrow, is all the answer she needs. “We looked everywhere. Along the cliff path and in the fields to either side all the way to where the high hills rise. We questioned every passer-by and stopped at each croft to ask. But none has seen a bairn or heard of one being found.” Slowly he raises his head, looks directly into the eyes of the young woman as he gathers courage. His voice is as gentle now as if he were speaking to a tiny child. “You’ve had a bad fall and a shock. Are you certain you didn’t just dream of a bairn?”

Her look at him holds strength like steel. “My bairn lives. I shall go now to find him.”
She has gained strength with her night’s sleep, and once she has eaten the bowl of porridge Elspeth prepares for her, nothing can prevent her leaving.

Still, Elspeth begs, “Please. Stay here with us. You have no one. We will be your family.”

But the young woman looks at her and at Michael. “Thank you both for your kindness. I must find my child. When I have him once more in my arms, I shall return to you.”

What shall I tell you of the days and nights that followed? She walks the dusty roads until darkness and exhaustion draw her to a hayrick or beneath a tree to sleep a few hours. Asking. Asking. Everyone she meets. Knocking on the door of every croft. “Have you seen a bairn? A baby boy? Close on a year old? Eyes the blue of night skies, hair like the flame of the setting sun?”

On the evening of the seventh day, weary beyond telling, she comes upon a small band of gypsies cooking their evening meal of rabbit stew over an open fire.

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The sadness in the eyes of the young woman touches their hearts. She is soon seated among them, offered a bowl of stew while one of the young gypsy girls bathes her swollen bleeding feet in a basin of cool spring water.

When the woman has recovered herself, she tells them her story, asks her question, “Have you seen a bairn…?”

The gypsies assure her they have only their own dark-eyed babies.
“But do not despair,” says the oldest man. “In seven days’ time, we leave for a great encampment of our people high in the hills. At that gathering will be an ancient crone, blessed with the sight. If anyone can know where your bairn is to be found, it will be she herself. Stay here for the week to rest; travel with us to speak with her.”

This morsel of hope brings back the colour to her cheeks. As the gypsy men take out their violins to play the sweet sad songs of their race, her heart begins to warm, to beat in rhythm to their music.

At the end of the seven days, made strong with music and rest, with fire and friendship and plentiful food, she sets off with the gypsies. On the third day, they reach the great encampment. As soon as her new friends have set up their camp, one of the young lads is instructed to lead her to where the ancient one always makes her fire.

An old old woman is sitting very still on a bench beside an open fire. The young woman sees her milky eyes and realizes with a shock that the crone is blind. But, sensing her presence, the ancient one, in a voice of surprising youth and sweetness, invites the younger woman to sit by her side on the bench. She lifts the young woman’s nearest hand into her own gnarled ones and holds it in silence. Then she asks, “What great sorrow brings you here?”

The young woman’s story pours forth like a rain-fed spring as the old one listens. The crone rises, feels for a clay pot that stands near the bench, withdraws from it a handful of herbs. These she tosses on the fire and the young woman sees that the cailleach is not completely blind, for she is peering intently now at shapes in the rising smoke. After a time, she returns to the younger one’s side, takes her hand once more in her own, breathes deeply and says, “Prepare yourself for great sorrow. Your bairn has been taken by the Sidh folk. They have taken him into their gathering, the Sidhean, where they are electing the new king to rule them for the next hundred years. What goes into the Sidhean does not come out.”

The young woman feels the blood leave her heart. “But the gypsies who brought me here promised me that you had great powers. Surely you can recover my child.”

“Yes. I have great powers. But my powers go back only as far as the dawn of humankind. The power of the Sidh folk is far more ancient than mine. I cannot undo what they have done.”

“Then give me some of your herbs that I may die, for I have nothing left to live for.”

At these words, the old one grasps her hand more firmly. “There may yet be a way. Allow me to think on this while the encampment lasts. Come to me in seven days’ time and I may have thought of something.”

All week, the young woman waits. Hope plays upon the strings of her heart as the gypsies’ bows play upon their violins. But between the notes and beneath the strings, grief and terror clutch at her.

On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

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The Hill of Tara at  Dusk

In our earlier session we arrived together in the Well of the Storyteller on Tara Hill. She is about to tell us an ancient tale of desire and longing, but first she invites us to settle in:

Lean back against the rock wall. Let it embrace you, body and spirit. Close your eyes. Relax all tension in your body. Breathe deeply. Now, I shall begin.

It is twilight on the moors as the eastern sky inhales, drawing away the day’s light, leaving a trail of rose madder and lavender on the sides of the far hills. Two of the Irish faery folk, the Sidh, now long vanished from our Isle, are walking along the path that skirts the cliff at the sea’s edge. One of them spies something ahead of her on the path and her greedy eyes glisten with the hope of gain. A bundle of clothes—perhaps finery—dropped by a traveller? She reaches down, her grasping fingers surprised by the weight. She opens the bundle, and cries out, “a bairn, a human bairn!”

The Sidh women look at one another, instantly united in one wicked resolve. “What no one is claimin’ is ours for the takin’.”

They hurry off, heedless of the cries of the baby now clutched to the finder’s thin breasts.

Almost all light has vanished as a coracle passes directly beneath the spot where the theft has just occurred. Michael and Niall are tired from their day’s fishing in the next cove, eager to be home to their families, their firesides, with the day’s catch. Niall plies the oars in the small boat, but it is Michael in the bow who spots the dark shape halfway up the side of the cliff. “Look up there, Niall. Is that someone trapped on the shelf – there, part way up the cliff?”

But Niall is weary, would rather not know, “Sure, ‘tis only a shadow, Michael. Or perhaps an animal resting.”

“Niall, how could we be sure ‘tis not some poor soul, fallen from the cliff above and injured? And how could we be going home to our own firesides, leaving someone there. Row to shore!”

Reluctantly, Niall turns the coracle towards the rocky cove and the bit of dry land that passes for shore. They secure the boat, scrabble their careful way up the cliff face, reaching for secure hand-holds, testing their weight on each jutting ledge with a tentative foot. When they reach the wide ledge where they’d spotted the shapes, they find a woman.

“Is she dead, Michael?” Niall’s whisper is filled with dread.

“No, but fainted or perhaps knocked unconscious by her fall. Here, take my cloak. Help me wrap her for the trip down to the boat.”

With tenderness, the two men make their careful way downwards, lay the still-unconscious woman in the bottom of their coracle. By the time they reach the cove near their own village, full darkness has risen to extinguish all outer light. The woman has not stirred.

Guided by the firelight that shines through the open window of Michael’s croft, they make their way to the door where Michael’s wife Elspeth, in one swift movement, lifts the woman into her arms and places her gently on the hearth rug beside the fire. “Quick, Michael, ladle some soup from the cauldron above the fire. Try to get her to swallow a little of it.”

The heat of the fire and the few drops of hot soup bring the woman to full wakefulness. She looks at Michael and his wife, and then around the small room as her eyes widen in terror. “My bairn! Where is my wee bairn?”

Elspeth looks at her husband. He shakes his head. “Prepare yourself for great sorrow,” she says to the younger woman. “There was no bairn with you when my husband and his friend found you.”

“You’d fallen from the cliff above,” Michael adds. “You might have died.”

But the young woman takes no comfort in her own survival. “My baby! He is all I have, for his father is dead. I placed him beside a gorse bush on the path, and went to find water for us both.” And already she has begun to stand as she says, “I must go to find him.”

Michael places a firm hand on her shoulder, preventing her from rising. “You’ll find nothing in this black night. Rest now, and at first light, Niall and I will call the men of village together to organize a proper search. We’ll walk back along the road that meets the cliff path. We’ll find your bairn. Never fear.”

But when he sees the anguish on the woman’s face, Michael reads her thought. How could a bairn survive alone at night? There are animals…

“I’ll get Niall and two lanterns. We’ll go now.”

Elspeth gives the woman more soup, laced with something to make her sleep, murmuring assurances that soon she’ll be holding her baby in her arms. But Elspeth hears another song deep in her own heart, a song of dread, of grief.

to be continued……

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives