Brigid Cailleach, Midwife to A new World

The crone or “cailleach” is an important part of the ancient Celtic tradition. With her blessing, today’s blog features excerpts from an article written by the great Celtic scholar Dolores Whelan (www.doloreswhelan.ie)

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New Worldmaiden_mother_crone_jpg_320_320_0_9223372036854775000_0_1_0
Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all, but those steeped in denial, that all is not well. It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives. We ask what is it in us humans that creates such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

The exclusion of the Feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration creates disharmony.
So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life? If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health.

At the present time there is a wonderful re-emergence of aspects of ancient spiritual traditions by people all over the world. The reconnection and embodiment of these ancient spiritual traditions, myths and stories has the potential to release the spiritual power needed for us to become agents of transformation within our society.

To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life. In order to create change within the physical world and in our society it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

My own journey over the past 25 years has been primarily within the Celtic spiritual tradition. This tradition which has emerged over many millennia continues to evolve. It includes the wisdom of the megalithic, the pre-Christian Celtic and the Christian Celtic traditions as they met and engaged with each other through the ages. I believe the rekindling of the flames of this tradition, which have lain dormant for many centuries, “like coals under the smooring awaiting a new kindling” holds a key to the recovery of the wisdom needed to create a more sane society.

“God is good and he has a great mother!” a statement sometimes heard in Ireland, reflects an important truth at the heart of the Celtic spiritual tradition, one that honours the presence of the divine feminine and understands that even God emerges out of the feminine energy of being-ness. The Divine Feminine is present at the heart of this spiritual tradition and plays a central role in both Celtic spirituality and Celtic culture.

There are many goddesses within Celtic mythology; however, Brigid as both goddess and saint, occupies a central place as representative of the Divine Feminine within Celtic tradition. Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance. Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form….

Each aspect of this trinity occupies a different role within the life, death, and rebirth continuum. The Feminine energy is both the harbinger and the birther of new life and is the destroyer of life that has been spent. It is experienced at the thresholds of life and death and rebirth.

The role of … Cailleach…. is the wellspring from which Brigid’s power manifests in the world.

What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine? The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways. It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good. Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away!

Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outward activity: a way that values…active waiting that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.
Dolores Whelan ???????????????????????????????

An Embodied Presence

As I continue to experience and reflect upon the ways the Sophia Presence reveals herself to us, I am coming to understand that hers is an embodied presence. As Maiden, as Mother, as Crone, within mystics of the past or women present in our lives, she shows herself in moments of light or deep need.

I met the Sacred Feminine Presence through someone I would call a true Baba Yaga. Many years ago, I interviewed a woman renowned for her wisdom and holiness. She lived in the deep woods by the Madawaska River in the Ottawa Valley. Her name was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Like the Baba Yaga, she was Russian. Catherine, from an aristocratic family, had escaped from the Revolution barely alive after almost starving at the hands of the Red Guard. Arriving in Canada in 1921, she vowed her life to God, working for a time in Toronto, then in Harlem operating Friendship Houses for the poor. In 1947, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, settled in the Madawaska Valley, creating Madonna House, a community of love and world-wide service that flourishes today, more than twenty- five years after her death.

On that October day in 1979, when I travelled from Ottawa to interview her, Catherine was 84 years old. I had prepared my questions carefully, rehearsing them on the three-hour drive. Armed with camera, notebook and tape recorder, I was eager for the encounter, already anticipating the wonderful article I would write for the Catholic newspaper I edited.

When I arrived at Madonna House, I was welcomed and invited into the dining room where some one hundred people were gathered around wooden tables, laid with platters heaped with an abundance of vegetables and meats from their farm and gardens. After lunch, everyone remained seated while Catherine gave her daily teaching, a mixture of red pepper and honey, fire for the spirit.
Afterwards, I followed Catherine and her secretary to a small library for the interview.

What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.
You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

Whooops. I hadn’t been taking notes nor had I thought to turn on my tape recorder. Intent on the interview that would follow, I had scarcely heard a word Catherine had spoken. Now I remembered nothing.

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?
You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

But I was a modern woman, a Post-Vatican Two woman, perhaps even Postmodernist, though I did not at that time know the term. I persisted. Many people today find it hard to know how to live the Gospel in this time. Will you offer some guidance in their confusion? I want to be able to quote your words in the article l am writing for our Diocesan paper. Catherine, who is Jesus for us now?
You, a nun, ask me that? You should know the answer yourself. And if you are a nun, why aren’t you wearing a habit?

Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.
Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.
I don’t talk about my friends.

I was outraged. No one I had interviewed before had ever treated me like this. I struggled on until Catherine herself ended the interview, saying to me: I’d like to interview you. Not now. Later. You are living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart and the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you.

It was four months before I had cooled down sufficiently to write the article. In those months, inklings of insight had been making their way through me. I began dimly to understand what Catherine had tried to do. I had been speaking with a mystic, a woman who, as I learned later, had fallen in love with God at the age of six. I didn’t ask her about the great love that was the ruling passion in her life. Nor about the price she had paid in suffering and misunderstanding as she followed that love’s promptings. I sat with her, dressed in my late-twentieth-century outfit, asking about adapting the Gospel, altering it to suit the times, as though it were an outdated garment.

Unlike Vasilisa, I hadn’t the wisdom to ask her for what I really needed – fire.

Catherine had wanted to speak of fire, and I wasn’t prepared for that. She tried to cut through my careful persona, find the woman under the journalist. It would be many years before I could appreciate fully what she had been offering me. She wanted to light a fire in me, give me a skull that was aflame with passionate love. I wasn’t ready for her gift.

But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.
It’s called A Woman in Love.200px-Catherine_Doherty_1970

The Gift of the Baba Yaga

Vasalisa’s mother (see previous post), gives her daughter a doll that holds the great gift of the motherline: intuition.

Though it was lost to me, buried deep, forgotten in my life until I was well into my adult years, I have learned that inner guidance, woman’s great inherited gift, can be refound. Then a woman need only take time to ask that hidden knowing, Which way now? and way will be shown to her, or, as my Quaker friends like to say, Way Will Open. When a woman is about to ask the wrong question or say more than can safely be said, she will feel a movement within her, not unlike a tiny doll dancing, warning, No. Sometimes the guidance will take the form of a suggestion or even clearly-understood words.

But the mother’s advice to Vasalisa to keep the doll hidden, not to tell of this gift, is wise. In a culture that not only fails to honour, but frequently derides and devalues intuition, the experience of being ridiculed, laughed at, can lead a young girl, who does not yet fully value or trust her own intuition, to bury the gift. Then, as happened with me, it may take many years for her to recover and reclaim the gift.

Have you also had such an experience?

The Baba Yaga is revealed as a great power, one who is in command of dawn, of sunrise, of night, an aspect of the ancient goddess. Yet when I first heard this story I was amazed that she was so very fierce, so cruel and unkind.

Now I do not think her so. Fierce, certainly. Demanding. But notice how Vasalisa becomes stronger in her time in the house of the Baba Yaga. She asks for what she needs. She stands before the power of the Crone and does not flinch. She questions the old one and understands that some mysteries are not yet hers to know.Though she roughly sends Vasalisa on her way, the Baba Yaga gives her the one gift the girl asked of her: a burning coal of fire. This gift proves to be far more than Vasalisa requested.

Did you wonder why the doll persuaded her not to fear the fiery skull, but rather to trust it?

What Vasalisa carried home with her was the gift of deep seeing. When she reached her home, the eyes in the skull pierced through the deceit and the pretence of the three false ones who greeted her.Even had they lived, their power over Vasalisa was diminished. Never again would the girl be able to persuade herself that, at heart, they really did care for her, and wished her no harm.

Vasalisa received from the Baba Yaga an initiation that many women never gain, or else come to only far later in life. We all carry dark mothers and cruel step-sisters within us. The tale warns us that being kind and accommodating, listening politely to their attacks when their voices rise from deep inside us, enduring, accepting, even believing the deceits of these inner critics, is not the way to peace. We need to turn the fierce light that is the crone’s gift upon all that seeks to diminish our lives, our birthright of love and strength. Whether these abuses come from persons in our outer lives or from inner voices we have somehow absorbed into our being, we must focus the flame of the burning coal within the skull. “Leave me and never return”, we say, as we turn our deep-seeing crone’s eyes on them. Watch them burn to cinders.

Have you ever seen a woman, submissive all her days to others, suddenly fiercely refuse to bow to oppression? This is the wisdom of the crone, not a comforting wisdom to achieve, for one must endure seeing truths that make life harder to bear. The crone knows it all, sees it all, and is beyond fooling herself with the tissue of half-truths and bare-faced lies, the fabrications that ooze from political promise, and assurances of economists that we’ll soon recover prosperity, that the collapse of capitalism is merely a temporary slowdown, that the impending death of much of our way of life is merely an afternoon nap.

The crone has no time for fools, for those who insist there is no imminent danger in the myriad of threats to life on our planet, that climate change is myth and the hourly extinction of species just a natural process, that things will right themselves in no time at all. The crone recognizes that in our own living rooms, weapons of mass distraction dominate our lives, luring us and lulling us. Their stories, no less than their commercials, promise us that beauty, health, and eternal youth are commodities that can be bought with a plastic card.

At whatever age she achieves her wisdom, the crone knows that the cycle of life is threefold, a never-ending spiral dance of life, death and rebirth. There is no pausing forever in life, no need to despair that death is ultimate. The rhythm of life is unstoppable. The crone knows and accepts the life/death/life cycle. This knowing sets her free for the fulness of joy, and frees her as well from the deception of those who traffic in false comfort.

When you are held in the embrace of the cailleach’s tough mother love, you may look deeply into the darkness in yourself, and in your culture. You are ready to ask the questions that need to be asked, to face the destruction that results when masculine energy runs rampant without the wise restraints of the feminine. You can begin to imagine the new life that will come when a mature masculine energy works in harmony with the cailleach’s power of renewal. The crone offers you the burning coal within the skull that will lead you towards transformation for yourself, for the planet. Seize it, not pausing for words.

Begin the journey into wholeness.

The Third Aspect of the Mother Goddess

Seeking the ancient footprints of the Sacred Feminine Presence, we take the path of myth and fairy tale. Here we find beautiful maidens, loving mothers. Research by historians into the distant past has garnered glimpses of a time when the great goddess was honoured as both maiden and mother. In her guise as Mother, she holds all of life in her embrace even as the Earth does. She was known as the ground of being, the giver and taker of life. In her form as Maiden, she was seen as the power of regeneration, the rebirth experienced each spring.

Old stories are replete with maidens and mothers, but there is a third aspect of feminine power that we glimpse only briefly. She is the Wise One, the aged one-who-knows, the cailleach. In Egypt, I encountered this fierce all-knowing one as Sekhmet. For the ancient Celts, this threefold aspect of the Sacred Feminine was honoured as the Trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone. Patriarchal societies and religions could tame the maiden, subjugate her through submission to a father, then to a husband as his wife and mother of his children. But there is no subjugating of a crone. She claims her fierce power, her independence, her magic. When the castle doors fly open, kings and popes alike tremble.

Here is an old Russian tale of the fierce crone: the Baba Yaga.

Vasalisa, a young maiden on the cusp of womanhood, is the most beautiful girl in the Russian village where she lives. On her feet are shiny red boots, ready to walk with her into a life of happiness. But Vasalisa is not happy. Her beloved mother has died, her father has remarried, and her stepmother and stepsisters, all smiles in his presence, treat the young Vasalisa with calculated cruelty in his absence. Envying her beauty, maddened by her sweet disposition, they try to rob her of both by giving her all the hardest tasks in the household: chopping firewood, lighting the stove, cleaning the floors, as well as all the cooking. Her hands are becoming raw, chapped and calloused, her complexion reddened by the stove’s flames, but Vasalisa still does not lose a drop of her sweetness. “Yes, of course”, “as you wish”, “right away”, she responds to their every order.

This sweetness is like poison to her stepmother. One day when Vasalisa is outdoors chopping wood, the stepmother speaks to her two daughters in a voice that is low and husky with rage: “Enough. I can stand no more of her. Let us contrive to make the fire go out. I shall send the girl into the deep woods to fetch a live coal from the fierce Baba Yaga. That witch will make short work of her. Her bones will be gnawed by the wild dogs before morning.”

So it is that as dusk deepens, Vasalisa is making her way into the heart of the forest in search of the Baba Yaga. If you look at her white face, her large frightened eyes, your heart will go out to her, but look more closely. There is courage in the child. Watch her reach into the pocket of her apron, nod slowly and smile….
Vasalisa has a secret, a gift from her dying mother, a tiny doll she carries always in her pocket. “Hide her. Feed her when she is hungry,” her mother had said. “And when you are uncertain or afraid, ask her to guide you.”
At each turning of the forest path, at each fork and crossroad, Vasalisa touches the doll, and the doll guides her surely through the darkness.
A horseman dressed all in black rides by on a stallion dark as a starless night. Suddenly Phrygian night envelops the forest. Vasalisa walks on. Hours pass and another horseman, this one all in white upon a milky horse, appears and it is dawn. A third horseman, all in scarlet riding upon a roan red horse, gallops past her. The sun rises, red as flame.

In the full light of morning, Vasalisa comes upon a strange house that dances on chicken legs, its doors and windows securely latched with bones. “Is this the house we seek?” Vasalisa asks the doll. “Yes” says the doll, even as the Baba Yaga herself swoops out of the sky, home from her night’s revels. She hovers above the child in her cauldron, a gnarled and fiercesome creature more ugly than any nightmare could create.
“Who are you? What do you want?” the Baba Yaga roars.
Trembling, but standing firm, the child answers, “I come from the house beyond the woods. Our fire has gone out, and my stepmother sent me to you to ask for a live coal.”
The Baba Yaga snarls, “Careless people! Exactly what I would expect from you! And why should I give you a coal?”
Vasalisa answers as the doll in her pocket prompts her, “Because I ask.”
Something softens for an instant in the Baba Yaga. “Well that is the right answer.”

But then she states her terms. Vasalisa must serve her for three days, washing her clothes preparing her meals, performing whatever other chores are assigned. If Vasalisa does all to the Baba Yaga’s complete satisfaction, she will receive what she asks for. If not, she will DIE!

And so Vasalisa enters the strange house, and sets to work at once. On that and on the next evening, before she sets out on her haunts, the Baba Yaga assigns one further task so utterly impossible that Vasalisa is in despair. But as soon as the witch has gone, her doll says, “Rest now. I’ll help you with that task.” And in the morning when Vasalisa awakens, the impossible task is already done: sorting poppy seeds from dirt or sorting mildewed corn from good corn. On each day, Vasalisa devotes the hours before the Baba Yaga’s return to preparing her supper, cleaning her house, washing her clothes.

But when the Baba Yaga returns, Vasalisa watches in wonder as a surprising thing happens. The crone summons hands from the air, hands that crush the poppy seeds into juice, hands that shuck the corn into neat piles, then disappear.
The Baba Yaga appears both pleased and displeased by Vasalisa’s accomplishments. She softens enough to say, “Is there anything you wish to ask me?” before adding crossly, “but take care what you ask, for too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

Vasalisa asks about the three horsemen who passed her in the woods.
“Ah,” says the Baba Yaga, “you met my night, my dawn, my sunrise. What else do you want to ask?”
Vasalisa thinks of the mysterious hands that appear in the air to squeeze poppy seeds, and shuck corn. But the doll in her pocket whispers, “No”.
“There is nothing more,” Vasalisa answers, “for as you say yourself old mother, too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

At this the Baba Yaga almost smiles. “You are wise for your years. From whence comes this wisdom?”
“From the blessing my kind mother gave me before she died,” Vasalisa answers.
Hearing these words, the Baba Yaga flies into a rage. She roars, “Speak not to me of blessings or kind mothers. Get out! Get out! Get out!” At the sound of her voice, her door flies open. The Baba Yaga shoves Vasalisa out into the night. Before the child can recover herself, the Baba Yaga is behind her. In her gnarled hands she holds a skull with a burning coal inside it. Seizing a bone from her fence, the Baba Yaga pushes the skull onto the bone and thrusts it into Vasalisa’s hands, shouting, “Here! Take your flame and go!”
The girl opens her mouth to say thank you, but her doll whispers, “No. Do as she says. Just go!”

And so she goes, returning home through the dark wood, guided by the doll in her pocket. But the grinning skull frightens her so that she wants to throw it away. The doll in her pocket, sensing this, whispers, “No. Trust it. It will help you.”
As Vasalisa at last emerges from the woods, her father’s house stands in utter darkness. Her stepmother and sisters come running out to meet her.
“We could not light the fire while you were gone,” the stepmother says.
Vasalisa notices that the skull is looking intently at her stepmother and stepsisters, with a gaze full of knowing. But unaware of danger, the stepmother seizes the burning skull from her hands and runs indoors to light the fire.
When she wakens in the morning, Vasalisa comes downstairs to begin her day’s chores. At first, she can find no sign of her cruel stepmother and sisters.
But on the floor beside the stove she finds three burnt cinders.

I leave you with this story for reflection until next week. You may wonder: What is this doll, the gift of her dying mother? What did Vasalisa really require from the Baba Yaga? What does the Baba Yaga’s response about the three horsemen reveal to us about her true identity?

Take care. Magic is afoot. And immense power.

Seeking the Sophia

I long for You so much

I follow barefoot Your frozen tracks

That are high in the mountains

That I know are years old.

I long for You so much

I have even begun to travel

Where I have never been before.
(in Hafiz The Subject Tonight Is Love trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

As we set out to find Sophia, the missing feminine aspect of the Holy, we prepare for a long journey, following tracks that are millennia old. We learn to be adept at time travel, at exploring deep dusty caverns of pre-history, at unravelling, then reweaving, threads of ancient stories.

Sophia is nowhere precisely, yet everywhere subtly. Mythologies of many cultures abound with tales of her presence, her power, her sufferings, her diminishments. Old fairy tales hold glimpses of her that are both tender and terrifying. We will need to look into sacred wells, old ritual sites, ruined temples and sanctuaries. We will carefully examine fragments of poetry, shards of pottery, pieces of drums, tiny perfect feminine figures carved of stone, buried in the depths of the earth.

We are living today in the time of the great recovery. What has been hidden is being revealed to us. Scholars of ancient civilizations are writing of their findings: the traces of a sacred feminine presence within the stories, myths and ritual practices of people long vanished.

In “A Brief History of The Celts”, Peter Berresford Ellis writes of the Great Mother Goddess of the Ancient Celts, revealing the connection between the Celtic Goddess and the great rivers of Ireland, a sacred connection also found in India’s mythology:
“… the Celts believed their origins lay with the mother goddess Danu, ‘divine waters from heaven’. She fell from heaven and her waters created the Danuvius (Danube), having watered the sacred oak tree Bile. From there sprang the pantheon of the gods who are known as the Tuatha de Danaan (Children of Danu) in Irish and the Children of Don in Welsh myths.” (p. 162)
The story associated with the Danuvius, which is arguably the first great Celtic sacred river, has similarities with myths about the Boyne, from the goddess Boann, and the Shannon, from the goddess Sionan in Ireland. More important, it bears a close resemblance to the Hindu goddess Ganga, deity of the Ganges. Both Celts and Hindus worshipped in the sacred rivers and made votive offerings there. In the Vedic myth of Danu, for she exists as a deity in Hindu Mythology as well, the goddess appears in the famous Deluge story called “The Churning of the Ocean.” (p.7)
Celtic writer Jen Delyth writes further of the goddess Anu, also known as Danu and Aine:

An ancient figure, venerated under many names, she is known as the womb of life. She is the spark and vitality of life. She is the seed of the sun in our veins. The Great Earth Mother is more ancient than the god of the Celtic Druids. She is the Mother whose breasts are the Paps of Anu in Ireland. Her hair is the wild waves, the golden corn. Her eyes are the shining stars, her belly the round tors or earth barrows from which we are born. Like the cat, the sow, the owl, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. She is the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons.”

In rivers, waves, and corn, in stars and earth barrows, in the very seasons of our land, this sacred presence is embodied, immersed, implanted in the universe, around, above, beneath, within us.

In “Women of the Celts”, Jean Markale offers an overview of the decline of the Sacred Feminine presence as the Jewish/Christian religions became dominant, but he also hints at how her presence survives:
Within the patriarchal framework (goddesses) were often obscured, tarnished and deformed, and submerged into the depth of the unconscious. But they do still exist, if only in dormant state, and sometimes rise triumphantly to rock the supposedly immovable foundations of masculine society. The triumph of Yahweh and Christ was believed sanctified forever, but from behind them reappears the disturbing and desirable figure of the Virgin Mary with her unexpected names: Our Lady of the Water, Our Lady of the Nettles, Our Lady of the Briars,
Our Lady of the Mounds, Our Lady of the Pines. But in spite of the veneration accorded her over the centuries and the public declaration of successive dogmas related to Mary, the authorities of the Christian Church have always made her a secondary character, overshadowed and retiring, a model of what women ought to be. Now the pure and virginal servant of man, the wonderful mother who suffers all heroically, she is no longer the Great Goddess before whom the common herd of men would tremble, but Our Lady of the Night.”     (Jean Markale “Women of the Celts” p. 86)

Our Lady of the Night! What a lovely, appropriate name for the presence we seek, the One who has so many different names… yet is being rebirthed now in our time, from the “womb of this present darkness”.

The ways we are to seek her may seem arduous, but the starting place is deep within our souls.

As Hafiz hints in his poem, the search begins with our longing for her.

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.

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives