Encounter with Wisdom Sophia

Yesterday I spent time engaged in a ritual designed by Starhawk. It was an invitation to go outdoors, to encounter a growing plant, study it, listen to its wisdom, learn from it. This is what aboriginal shamans did, how they learned about the medicinal qualities of plants as well as other aspects of earth wisdom.wisdom plant 001

This plant in my garden is awakened by the sun’s morning appearance in the east, inviting her to live a new day. Reflecting on this, I recalled words of Ezechiel: “Live and grow like the grass in the fields”. Was this the plant’s wisdom for me? I turned towards the south whose warmth engenders life within this plant, asking what I need to engender new life from within. I remembered the west wind loved by poets, the winds that ruffle the leaves of this plant, soothing, caressing. I remembered friends whose gentle winds of love sustain me through times of inner turmoil. I faced north, the place of transformation. What is north for this plant?

Winter, I thought, imagining her glossy green leaves brittle, brown, broken. Winter when she must let go of all she cherishes, feeling it blown away by cold winds until nothing remains but her buried roots. Under the snow-covered garden, she endures the long wait through darkness until her new life emerges with spring. But would she know about spring? I found my thoughts turning to my own life, to the way I resist recurring cycles of loss and transformation, as though I too were ignorant of the way spring must follow winter.

I looked at my plant, admiring her steady presence, her calm acceptance of the rhythms of life…. She has become my wisdom-teacher.That ritual opened my heart when I later read Rilke’s poem, “The Apple Orchard” :

The trees….
bear the weight of a hundred days of labor
in their heavy, ripening fruit.
They serve with endless patience to teach

how even that which exceeds all measure
must be taken up and given away,
as we, through long years,
quietly grow toward the one thing we can be.

(in “A Year with Rilke“ Joanna Macy, Anita Barrows, ed.)

My heart knew urgency. What is that “one thing (I) can be?” And how soon might my winter come? I decided to share with you, my blog readers, the work which has been taking shape in my life, the “one thing” that I can be and can do. I invite you to be part of something new that I have been called to create, as my small work within the great work of transforming spirituality in and for our time.

June is opening around us, releasing young birds into the air, drawing the tall purple Iris into bloom, bursting trees into leafy greenness. At each moment the universe is birthing newness. We in whom the universe dwells are continuously being reborn. Yet we carry in our hearts, our minds, our very souls, old, outworn, decaying images and thoughts of the sacred, unaware of the beauty within us, blind to our own light, deaf to the music of our longings, utterly incapable of knowing how deeply we are loved.

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Reflecting on Ephesians 4:6, Elizabeth Johnson writes:
The One who blows the wild wind of life, who fires the blaze of being, who gives birth to the world, or who midwifes it into existence does not stand over against it or rule it hierarchically from afar but dwells in intimate, quickening relationship with humanity and the life of the earth…. Enfolding and unfolding the universe, the Spirit is holy mystery over all and through all and in all. (in “Woman, Earth and Creator Spirit“ Paulist Press 1993 p. 57)

We are being wooed by a Love passionate and faithful beyond our imaginings, a Love that yearns for our freedom, our transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, into a newness that is joyous, rich, empowered to reach out in love to transform the world.

What I want to say is
that the past is the past
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable of choosing what that will be…
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbour of your longing,
and put your lips to the world
and live your life.
(Mary Oliver)

There are three aspects of this invitation for you to consider, allowing your own desires to guide you in your choice to become involved in one, or two or all three facets of the work.

First, gather a group of friends who share your desire to imagine/ to explore/ to create together a new expression of spirituality.

Second, contact me to arrange a time and place when I might come to offer the play, “The Wooing of the Soul”, woven around the ancient Irish tale of Midir and Etain.

Third, should you and your friends wish to continue to engage in this adventure on your own, I shall provide resources and suggestions that will assist you, serving as a compass.

If you have been experiencing a stirring, a call to incarnate a new way of knowing the Holy, a desire to share this with others, you may wish to pray these words from Clarissa Pinkola Estes:
Please remind me that people are waiting for my work,
That I make them suffer even more by withholding it.
Please help me to create in all mercy toward others
For I’ve been given everything I need to be one who awakens myself and others through
how I live, how I work, not so much even in the doing than in the BEING….

I am willing to work with you to make this possible, affordable, enchanting. It will form the heart of my work over the years ahead. You may contact me if you have questions or for further clarity. amclaughlin@sympatico.ca

Let us together put our lips to the world and live our life!

Anne Kathleen McLaughlin

Sophia with Another Name

We emerge from the Well of the Storyteller on Ireland’s Tara Hill. Her tale of Seal Woman has shown us a sacred space within ourselves, a homeplace where all that we are is held in love. Her tale of a woman of bone has revealed something of our longing for love. The poetry of Hafiz has spoken to us of a love at the heart of the universe that yearns for us in return.

From Tara Hill, we travel to London Ontario to attend a three day Festival at Brescia College, honouring Brigid. Rather than a mysterious presence who will not tell her name, we encounter and celebrate a woman who actually lived on our planet some fifteen centuries ago.

Brigid, the fifth century abbess of Kildare, was born in Ireland just as Christianity was taking root in soil once sacred to the goddess of many names. Her father was a pagan chieftain, her mother a Christian. Legend tells us that Brigid’s mother gave birth on the doorstep of her home, a foreshadowing of Brigid’s call to be a threshold person, a causeway joining pagan and Christian Ireland. As abbess of a monastery for both women and men, Brigid held the spiritual power, the moral authority of a Bishop. Though she left us no written records, stories of her life hold an energy, an influence, that has now reached far beyond Ireland.

On Thursday evening before the Festival, Starhawk, an earth-honouring social activist from the U.S., spoke to some five hundred people about the crisis facing our earth. For her sacred text, she chose Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. For hope, inspiration and direction, she called on Brigid, pausing in the midst of mind-numbing facts and photos of burning oil wells, flooding seas, nuclear disasters, polluted waters, land ravaged by drought, to sing the chant: “Holy Well and Sacred Flame”, to ask, What Would Brigid Do?

Starhawk suggested Brigid’s responses: honour water so that to defile it would be morally unacceptable; transform polluted waters (there are ways to do this!); rehydrate the earth; promote an alternate world-view based on interdependence where good food and fresh water are available to everyone; leave the oil and gas in the ground; work towards a low carbon future, finding ways to sequester carbon in the soil; engage in activism that will create enough power to bring the powerful corporate polluters to our table; stand up to say NO to oil pipelines; organize locally using whatever gifts and skills we have: educating/ researching/ negotiating/ mobilizing/acting. Find our power, find our gift. Stand with the indigenous people and with them take our responsibility as guardians of the earth. Community is an antidote to Climate Change.

Calling “austerity” programs a form of theft, a neo-feudalism, Starhawk said Brigid’s life teaches that generosity creates abundance. We need a new imagination to face down the fear that arises from “scarcity thinking”.


Starhawk (centre)

In the days that follow, we hear of Brigid’s generosity: as a child she would give away the milk she took from her family’s cow, only to find that the pail had refilled itself when she returned home. As a woman concerned for the hungry, Brigid asked a rich landowner to give her a field that she might grow food for the poor. He agreed to give her all the land that her cloak would cover. When Brigid spread her cloak on the ground, it stretched across several acres. Brigid shows us that our generosity yields abundance.

Brigid’s sacred flame, which her community kept burning for more than a millennium, shows us the fire that does not burn, the inner fire that keeps us focused on what truly matters.

We experience rituals: a sacred dance of earth, water, air and fire; walking the labyrinth under the young moon; singing together; following the drum in a spiralling meditation; passing through the gateway of the braided crios or belt of Brigid that in ancient times was a symbol of woman’s authority. With more than a hundred women as companions, we find spirit sustenance, a homeplace where our soul might rest. This is Brigid’s threshold power at work, drawing together women who had left other faith traditions that did not nourish them.


Ritual table showing braided crios

“Brigid is the acceptable face of woman’s divinity”, Mary Condren told Festival participants on Friday morning. Mary, who is the National Director of Woman Spirit Ireland, and Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, is exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times. It seems that at the Festival of Samhain, the maiden, mother and crone return to the Cailleach. By uncovering old pilgrimage paths and excavating ancient ritual sites in Ireland, researchers are finding many earlier aspects of the sacred feminine that were then ”folded into” the Brigid tradition which in turn was interwoven with the fifth century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren expressed a longing for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.

Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. At her sacred well, we align ourselves with the call to speak truth to power; we align ourselves with what we are called to do with our lives. Brigid’s fire is an inner flame that does not burn out. Mary Condren suggests that we cultivate that inner fire of purification and protection rather than the spectacular destructive fire of sacrifice.

We leave the Brigid Festival, knowing we have encountered in the women we met, and in the spirit of Brigid herself, another aspect of Sophia, the sacred feminine presence.

Naming the Presence of Love

Prompted by the Storyteller’s questions, I have been searching my heart-memory. There are lines from the poetry of Hafiz that have come to me as though spoken by a Holy Loving Presence for whom I have no name. Hafiz calls that presence simply “the Friend”.

I speak his lines:

Ask the Friend for love,
Ask again.
For I have learned that every heart will get
What it prays for most.

Suddenly I recall the one poem by Hafiz that I do know fully, one I laboured to learn by heart.

There is one more, I tell you both, one I love so much that I think I can remember all the lines:

I saw you dancing last night,
On the roof of your house all alone.
I felt your heart longing for the Friend.
I saw you whirling beneath the soft bright rose
that hung from an invisible stem in the sky.
So I began to change into my best clothes
in hopes of joining you,
Even though I live a thousand miles away.
And if you had spun like an immaculate sphere
just two more times,
And bowed again so sweetly to the east,
You would have found God and me
standing so near and lifting you into our arms.
I saw you dancing last night near the roof of this world.
Hafiz feels your soul and mine calling for our Beloved.

I wait for a few heartbeats before I say: That’s really as much as I remember from Hafiz. Maybe I didn’t even get all the words exactly right.

I look directly at the Storyteller, impatience rising in me as I say: Now, will you please tell us about this story?

The Storyteller smiles, speaks calmly, apparently unaware of my annoyance with her:

Hafiz has given you all the teaching you require. I notice that you selected the poems that speak of love. The story of the Skeleton Woman, like Hafiz’ poetry, is about the passionate love of the Holy One for you. Hafiz is teaching you of that immense longing for union that is at the deep heart of this story, the longing that called out to the fisherman from the depths of the sea, though he did not know who called to him.

The One whom Hafiz calls the Friend, the Beloved, or sometimes God, is the Holy One who yearns so deeply for you, who loves your stumbling dance steps, who is so drawn by your longing that he/she comes to where you dance alone, ready to lift you into the arms of Love.

And then this Sufi poet teaches you one more secret. There is deep within you something so sacred, so holy, that it needs to lie down naked next to God.

I could have told you all of that myself when you asked, the Storyteller adds, but Hafiz is the better poet.

Now do you understand the story? It is about the human hunger, the longing for love, for deep union. This is a story of the yearning that draws flesh to flesh, the allurement that is at the heart of all of life, at the heart of the sacred seeking that first sent humans in quest of the Holy. They sought her among the stars when all the while she lay hidden in the depths of the marsh, in the bed of the sea, in the atoms, the cells, the very stuff of their own bodies.

There is utter silence in the well after she says this. You and I gaze at her, amazed.

You are the one who asks the question, the question I warned you, on our first visit here, not to ask, believing she would not answer.

Now I, too, need to know.

Who are you? you ask. The question spins in the well like a whirling dervish.

For answer, the Storyteller says, Bring your cup and I will pour out God.

That, too, is Hafiz! I say to her. But who are YOU really?

I am every particle of dust and wheat – you and I
Are ground from the Holy One’s Body. I am rioting at your door;
I am spinning in midair like golden falling leaves
Trying to win your glance.
I am sweetly rolling against your walls and your shores
All night, even though you are asleep. I am singing from
The mouth of animals and birds honoring our
Beloved’s promise and need: to let
you know the Truth.

I watch you open your eyes wide in surprise as she says all this.

But I am not impressed. I know she has not revealed anything.
That, too, is a poem from Hafiz, I say.
I begin at once to make my way back up out of the well, not even looking to see if you are ready to come. I do not say goodbye to the Storyteller.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes gave us the “The Skeleton Woman” story and teachings in her book, “Women Who Run With the Wolves”, Ballantine Books New York 1992

Daniel Ladinsky brought Hafiz alive for our time by translating his poetry. “My Sweet, Crushed Angel” is from the CD “Hafiz: The Scent of Light”, trans. Daniel Ladinsky, published by Sounds True, Boulder CO, USA, 2002; you can also find this poem in Daniel Ladinsky “Love Poems from God” Penguin Compass, New York, 2002; “I Saw You Dancing” and all other excerpts of Hafiz’ poetry quoted here are from “The Subject Tonight Is Love” translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass New York, 1996, 2003

Hafiz Teaches of Love

After I finish speaking, the Storyteller sits in silence for so long that I begin to feel uncomfortable. Has the long tale of my discovery of the feminist theologians been inappropriate? Perhaps it is taking us in a different direction from what she intended.

To my surprise, the Storyteller asks, What more have you learned from the feminist theologians?

The words pour from me as though they’d been waiting for her question. I learned that I’d been living a spiritual life second-hand, that I’d been taught by men, some of them holy, most well-meaning, how to be a good man. I’d been warned about the dangers of pride, lust, anger, none of which were my most serious struggles. I had learned to distrust love, to be cautious with emotion, to value thought over feeling. I’d learned to distrust my desires, my body, my sexuality, all of which, I’d been warned, would lead me astray, away from God. I learned to embrace an ideal of perfection, though I never succeeded in living it out.

One day a young priest came to the Galilee Centre to give a talk on feminine spirituality. From him, I learned that in the classic dualities of Greek thought: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman, there is a perceived hierarchy. Spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman. This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the earth..

I learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the earth, of the body, of our feelings, of our sexuality. Listening to the wisdom of that young man, I discovered that not all feminist theologians are women.

That day, I began a journey of reclaiming what had been lost, what I had lost. I began with the recovery of desire. What did I really want? Truly, deeply, want. I began with knowing that was the question that would lead me to the Holy One, as truly as the fisherman’s hunger led him to Her. That’s why I asked you tell us a story of desire and longing on the first day we came here.
There is so much more I could say. I stop talking. I look at her. Please. Tell us what you know about the mysteries in this story of the Skeleton Woman. As I ask, I am fingering the silver spiral pendant I’ve been wearing for the past year. I notice her gaze, directed at my necklace.

What are the words on your spiral pendant? the Storyteller asks.

I feel a stab of annoyance. It is not like her to elude my questions, to try to distract me like this.

You know well what they are, I say impatiently. We have often spoken of these words. They are part of a poem by Hafiz, the Sufi poet from fourteenth-century Persia.

What is the poem? Will you read it aloud for us?

As she asks this, the Storyteller places just the slightest emphasis on the word “us”. I look at you, realize she wants you to hear the poem read aloud.

Sorry, I say, to both of you. I had almost forgotten you were here.

I squint at the silver etchings. I didn’t bring my reading glasses, and I can’t make out the tiny words.

No matter. I know them by heart.

There is something holy deep inside
of you that is so ardent and awake.
That needs to lie down naked
Next to God.

In the dry air of the cavern, the words echo strangely. It’s as though another voice has spoken them. After the silence deepens, I ask her again: What have you to teach us today about the story of the Skeleton Woman?

The Storyteller, maddeningly, asks only, What other poems by Hafiz do you know by heart?

I answer, still nettled by her questions. I don’t know any full poems, only a few lines from different ones that speak to me deeply, comfort me when I feel alone, calm me when I sense I’ve fallen short of some ideal…

Tell us these lines, she says. Then, acknowledging my reluctance, she adds, I wouldn’t ask if it were not important.

I muster grace enough to scan my memory. I recall a day when I was driving home from a community meeting where I had failed badly. I no longer remember what I’d said or done, only the familiar surge of guilt, shame, disappointment in myself. A new CD of Hafiz’ poetry was playing in the car’s sound system. For the first time, I heard one of the final tracks. These are the lines I remember, the ones I speak aloud now:

You have
not danced so badly, my dear,
trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style, my sweet, crushed angel…
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow, and even His
best musicians are not always easy to hear.

As I say the words, I remember the sweet wash of joy that flooded my heart, even as I still marvel how, by chance, that poem should have come on that day for the first time.

Now we are all wrapped in silence, in a magic cloak of love, woven by Hafiz.

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?


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.


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.

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives