Return to Norwich

In 1999 I returned to Norwich. In the seven years since I’d been here, I’d changed. With the reverse logic of the lover, I’d thought that Norwich would’ve remained the same. With a sense of betrayal, I looked on large car parks, half-demolished industrial buildings, a new four-storey shopping mall that towered over the old Castle. My favourite pub, “The Murderer’s Cafe”, was gone. Altered roadways blotted out the clarity of the city map I held in my head.

Yet the Church of St. Julian had not altered. I walked towards the tiny flintstone building, rebuilt after the bombing of the original twelfth century structure in June, 1942. As I made my way along Julian’s Alley, my attention was caught by a notice attached to the arched front door of the Church. I drew nearer. I was reading my own name. Soon the whole notice became legible, announcing four performances I’d come to Norwich to offer: a one-woman play on the life and writings of Julian, written by James Janda.

The interior of the church had been adapted for the event. The altar, with its reredos (which had survived the bombing), stood just behind a built – up stage area, adding some three feet to the height of the floor to allow the audience seated in the church pews a clearer view. Felicity Maton, secretary to the Friends of Julian, who’d made the arrangements for the event, explained the plans for lighting. Together we examined the props: the bed, a trunk, the stool, the writing desk.

“Excuse me for a moment,” I said to Felicity. “I need to greet someone.” I walked to the arched doorway at the right of the sanctuary, pushed my thumb down on the iron latch. The door to Julian’s reconstructed cell swung inwards.

 Inside, all was as I’d remembered it, as I’d seen it in memory many times over the past years. I sat down on the bench that was built against the far wall under windows that in Julian’s time would have opened onto the street. Now they looked out to the green grass and trees of the Church yard, edged with a gigantic bush of red roses.

 I let my eyes rest on the marble slab that contained an image of the crucified Jesus.  It bore the words that on my first visit had transfixed me, “Thou art enough to me.”  This time, my eyes lighted on the other words carved into the marble, “Lo, how I loved thee.”

 Yes.  How you loved me, I repeated silently to the One who had brought me here, who had brought me on a far longer journey from emptiness to fullness over the past years, from the state of being without a ministry or a place to live, to the eruption in my life of a ministry so full and satisfying that I could hardly take it in. 

 On that earlier visit I’d prayed to Julian, “Please find me a work like yours, where I can speak to others of God’s love.” Now in the palpable presence of Julian’s spirit, I thanked this goodly woman who had changed my life.

 I returned to Felicity after a few moments with a question, “What do you suggest I do about changing into costume?”

“Why don’t you dress in Mother Julian’s cell and emerge from there to begin the play?”

 So that is how it was, for the four performances over the two weekends.  At first I had to catch myself in the midst of my lines, distracted by the thought, It’s happening here, in the very place where Julian lived.

 On the night of the third performance there was a difference. The wonder had not ceased, but the lack of reality was replaced by an intense awareness that was joyous.  I felt the role with every aspect of my being. In the midst of the first act, I was so conscious of elation, that I tried to touch its source.  It came to me soon enough.

That afternoon I’d been invited to tea in the small apartment of Father Robert Llewellyn, an Anglican priest whose name I’d seen liberally sprinkled through bibliographies of works on Julian.  As we shared the last pieces of his ninetieth birthday cake, Father Robert told me of his assignment in 1976: to be a presence in the Julian Cell.

“For the first month, I spoke with no one,” he recalled. “I just went morning and afternoon and sat in her cell, and prayed.”  After a month someone approached with a question, and gradually his work of listening and advising, mostly in aspects of prayer, began to grow.

Through Father Robert’s efforts, a bookstore/study room and counselling room were created in a hall belonging to the Anglican convent next door. Now this “Julian Centre” attracts scholars and pilgrims who come to read about Julian, to ask about her teachings, to purchase books and souvenirs.

 At the end of our visit, Father Robert asked if we might have fifteen minutes of silent prayer together. There were people he’d promised to pray for, and he suggested that prayers be offered for the performance scheduled for that evening, that it would reach people who would need Julian’s message.

The lightness and joy I felt in the midst of that evening’s performance were the fruit of that silent prayer with Father Robert After the first act, he pressed my hand to his heart. “Thank you,” he said. “You have given us a gentle Julian. You have made her homely.” With a smile he added, “I know in America, that is not a good word, but it is here.” 

My life and my work have become intertwined with the loving trust and homely wisdom of this woman whose teaching is meant for the ordinary days of our lives. 

Days like my second last in England in that summer of 1999, when I stood at the airline desk, one half hour before the departure of my flight from Gatwick to Ottawa, and was told the flight was closed.

 In a moment of near panic, followed by a sense of utter despair, I said, “What am I to do?  I have nowhere to go.” I was met with closed faces. Then from within me Julian’s words arose: “He did not say, `You shall not be tempest – tossed, you shall not be discomfited.’ But He said, `You shall not be overcome.'”

 I believed her. I turned my luggage cart around, trying to balance the seven-foot container of the tapestry, my luggage with costume and props, the weight of new books on Julian. I stood in the middle of Gatwick Airport and cried. Then, having finished with tears, I wheeled the cart outside and found a taxi, a hotel, and the peace to accept this reversal.  I was not overcome.

Revisiting Julian of Norwich

      Wondering what theme might offer us both inspiration and courage in this time of intense suffering and daily uncertainty on our planet, I suddenly found the answer. Who better to guide us than Julian of Norwich whose life in England in the fourteenth century in many ways mirrors ours in the twenty-first? Yet her writings affirm the tender love in which we are held, with assurance that, finally, “all shall be well.”

In the wonderful manuscript she left us, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian’s desire was to share the tender passionate love she experienced in a near-death experience, a night of visions of the Crucified Jesus.

Of Julian herself we know nothing at all, not even her name. She took the name “Julian” when she became an anchoress in the Church of Saints Julian and Edward in Norwich, England in the late years of the 14th century.

 And yet, I have come to know Julian by heart. I begin this reflection on Julian by writing of my own encounter with this beloved woman.

 On a cold wet February day in 1992, I first visited Julian’s reconstructed cell in Norwich. I was on sabbatical in England, studying writing at the University of Sussex. My writing tutor, who had come from Magdalene College at Oxford, Geoff Hemstead, was a gift of wisdom and encouragement in my fledgling work.

 At his suggestion that I should learn about Julian, I searched the University’s library where I found a 1901 edition of Revelations. Editor Grace Warrack wrote in her introduction: From the first we find Julian holding her diverse threads of nature, mercy and grace for the fabric of love she is weaving…

 That’s Julian. In a hazelnut shell.

Caption: In the corners of this painting of Julian by Jane Joyner, notice that each of the four elements is present, reminding us that we are not alone in the challenges we face, nor is the earth alone, for Love is present everywhere, transforming darkness into light, despair into hope, death into life.

 Geoff began to urge me to visit Norwich. To quiet his insistence, I wrote to the Julian Centre, booking a room for the next February weekend. After a two-hour train journey from London, I walked through the streets of Norwich, map in hand, to seek the Church and Visitors’ Centre.

Along King Street, turning right at Julian’s Alley, I found the tiny, perfect flint-stone church a 1950’s reconstruction after the original was destroyed by a World War Two bombing. A plaque was set into the outer wall: Dame Julian of Norwich, Mystic, became an anchoress living in a cell attached to the south wall of this church soon after 1373, and here she wrote, “Revelations of Divine Love”.

 The Church was open. I went inside, walked up the centre aisle, saw a low wooden door to the right, with a sign welcoming visitors to the reconstructed anchorhold. I pressed the iron latch with my thumb and entered, thinking I’d take a few photos and leave.

 I was stopped in my tracks. There was a presence in the room that I had to acknowledge. I sat down and began to tell this kindly wise woman about the pain that had brought me to England. She heard, and responded with words that sustained me for the rest of my sabbatical and guided me home. She has been my friend ever since.

That night in the guest house, I found a small book with a one-woman play about Julian. written by the Jesuit priest James Janda. I copied down the information. After I returned to Canada, I ordered the play. As an incentive, I paid in advance the required royalty for the first performance of the play. Over the next three decades of my life I would offer this play some eighty times in Canada, the US, England and Ireland.

On our troubled, ailing, agonized planet with our twenty-first century awareness of the sufferings and sorrows of its inhabitants, it is easy to imagine earlier centuries as alluringly quiet and peaceful. If we picture Julian’ s century like that, we may dismiss her optimism, her profound trust in the Love that contains us, as naïve.

Julian’s time was far from idyllic. She lived through three outbreaks of black plague that reduced the population of England by one-half; in her time the pre-Reformation Church was in schism, with two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon! And into the windows of her anchorhold  wafted smoke from the fires burning heretics in her city of Norwich.

 Julian’s original manuscript has never been found, though there are later copies in the British Library and in the Paris Bibliotheque, the earliest dating from the late fifteenth century, some fifty years after her death. Her writings were forgotten, buried in the debris of a troubled historical time, amidst the destruction of the monasteries where such manuscripts would have been preserved. It was only in the twentieth century that her writings came to be widely known.

 One of the earliest references to Julian’s words is in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, in the final passage of “Little Gidding”:

Quick now, here, now, always –

And the fire and the rose are one.

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are infolded

Into the crown of knotted fire

Thomas Merton brought Julian into 20th century awareness in these impassioned words: Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St. John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. (Seeds of Destruction)

Theologian Margaret Brennan says of Julian: It takes a kind of raw faith to believe in God’s goodness and love in a time of societal collapse.

We need Julian’s “raw faith” now as never before on our planet.   

Marauders and the Mistresses of Water

Goddess of Healing by Flo Schell

Jean Houston forwarded this article by anthropologist Carla Stang about the archetypal dynamics of the War in Europe:

As an anthropologist I take a long long view of this war and what I see is something stunning. This conflict is an echo of a thing terrible and crucial that occurred in exactly this place in ancient times, and which has been reverberating ever since. It’s little known that 7000 years ago western Ukraine was the cradle of Europe’s first civilisation, and in three waves it was invaded by people of the steppes of Russia and southeast Ukraine. The subjugation of this civilisation and the destruction of their peaceful, egalitarian way of life set the course for Western culture as we know it, that is to say, the culture of the West that we inherited is a culture of marauders.

It is no surprise then that we are outraged to our bones. We are witnessing the playing out of a primordial nightmare, the seed of the blasted tree that would grow into a history of misogyny, war and the horrors of colonialism. Which means what is being fought for is nothing less than the redemption of European culture, an ancient European culture which cherished the earth, children, women along with men, art and peace, a culture which was not only vanquished but purposely hidden and forgotten, which still grows its tendrils through present day Ukraine. In a sense what is being fought for is what the West once was, what barely survived of it and what could be once more.

Let us first remember.

Before the ziggurats and pyramids there existed from 5500 – 2750 BC the megasite cities of the Cucuteni-Trypillia or the Tripolye or Trypilsti people, with a population that at its height exceeded one million, in an area that extended through Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. The largest of these settlements was in Ukraine near Kyiv and reached the size of medieval London.

Why is this not widely known? Why do the textbooks and Google say that the first complex civilisation was in Mesopotamia? First because the initial archaeological finds in 1885 occurred after those of the civilisations of Sumer and Ancient Egypt. Then because the research which the Soviets funded at first was then silenced by them because the finds did not fit with their ideology, research was stopped, archaeologists were convicted of being spies and many fled to other countries.

In the last few decades since communist rule, there has been a tide of scholarship and interest. What has been found continues to be astonishing and confounding. These huge settlements do not fit with theories about the Neolithic and about urbanisation. The sprawling settlements incorporated the rural into the urban, rather than being one or the other. And the intricate and sophisticated way they did this defies long held ideas of Europe as having nothing but a smattering of small, warring tribes.

“Under the earth were strewn thousands and thousands of images of woman” – Vikentiy Khvoika

Large well-made temples and houses, 90 foot quarries, trade routes, supply chains, inventories. Agriculturalists, potters, blacksmiths, gold and coppersmiths and weavers. The largest burial of worked gold ever found anywhere. And everywhere images of throned women, and images of men with exquisite expression, carvings of stone so beautifully made one can see the tenderness of the hands that hold the baby. Every object used in every aspect of life is lovingly ornamented.

Earthenware, ceramics, pottery, tools, vessels, dishes, pottery moulds, internal walls of houses painted in varying earth-colours, white, red, ochre and black, and sometimes carved with incisions or encrusted with symbols of nature sun, moon, stars, rain, snakes, birds, bulls, trees, branches, seeds, flowers, water and with magical symbols circle, teeth, rhombus, crosses, endless meanders, snake-pattern.

I could go on and on about this culture where nature entwined and pulsed through every aspect human life. But for brevity’s sake let us continue and add that this was a culture which depicted councils as concentric circles of throned women. And rituals of initiation, fertility and farming by women and men who venerated before all others the goddess in forms of crone, lover, mother and young maiden, bird and serpent but also the animal-masked god-man, ecstatic dancer, the one-eyed ancient one and the divine child. No images of war. There were no slaves. And the priestess and priest who wore the gold at public events went home to an ordinary house.

From around 3000 BC in successive waves down came the Proto-Indo-Europeans, riders on horseback. And conquest included the things we have learned to be familiar with, murder, rape, deliberate obliteration of local culture. In this way the semi-nomadic pastoralists of the steppes, carrying with them their sky gods and patrilineal and patriarchal social systems, destroyed the great Neolithic civilizations of the 4-5th millennia. I wonder at how many cultures the survivors seeded elsewhere (I know of a few), in how many of us ancestral memories stir, and how far these survivors were flung.

But archaeologists agree too that the land of the Trypiltsi has been tilled without cease since these ancient times, and just as under this earth the lives of the Trypiltsi were preserved, so were they in the people of Ukraine, the celebration of singing children and men, of nature and powerful women, flower on clothing and stove, the meandering line of water on the wall, beliefs and attitudes that just would not die.

May the people of the Mistresses of Water wash the Marauders away, and may the West find the spiralling way back to the dream before the nightmare, of the beauty of what it might have become and could become again.

Walking with Teilhard de Chardin

With the darkness on our planet these days, we need to remember why we have hope. It’s a good time to go for a walk in Central Park in New York City with Teilhard de Chardin. We’ll see Teilhard through the eyes of someone who knew him, walked with him for a time, engaged in conversation with him, and encountered his transformative view of reality.

In her autobiography, A Mythic Life (Harper Collins, New York, 1996), Jean Houston gives us a perspective on Teilhard that is deeply personal and insightful. The great palaeontologist and mystic becomes for us, through Jean’s experience, a warm, enchanting, human presence.

At the time of their tumultuous first meeting in the early 1950’s, Teilhard was living in a Jesuit Residence in New York City, having  been exiled from his native France, silenced, forbidden to write or to teach his advanced ideas about evolution. Jean, a high school student, heartbroken over her parents’ impending divorce, had taken to running everywhere. Then, one day…

…on 84th Street and Park Avenue, I ran into an old man and knocked the wind out of him. This was serious. I was a great big overgrown girl, and he was a rather frail gentleman in his seventies. But he laughed as I helped him to his feet and asked me in French-accented speech, “Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, thinking of my unhappiness. “It sure looks that way.”

“Well, bon voyage!” he said.

“Bon voyage!” I answered and sped on my way. About a week later, I was walking down Park Avenue with my fox terrier, Champ, and again I met the old gentleman.

“Ah,” he greeted me, “my friend the runner, and with a fox terrier. I knew one like that many years ago in France. Where are you going?”

“Well, sir,” I replied, “I’m taking Champ to Central Park. I go there most afternoons to … think about things.”

“I will go with you sometimes,” he informed me. “I will take my constitutional.”

And thereafter, for about a year and a half, the old gentleman and I would meet and walk together as often as several times a week in Central Park. He had a long French name but asked me to call him by the first part of it, which as far as I could make out was Mr. Tayer.

The walks were magical and full of delight. Mr. Tayer seemed to have absolutely no self-consciousness, and he was always being carried away by wonder and astonishment over the simplest things. He was constantly and literally falling into love. I remember one time he suddenly fell on his knees in Central Park, his long Gallic nose raking the ground, and exclaimed to me, “Jeanne, look at the caterpillar. Ahhhhh! ” I joined him on the ground to see what had evoked so profound a response.

“How beautiful it is,” he remarked, “this little green being with its wonderful funny little feet. Exquisite! Little furry body, little green feet on the road to metamorphosis.”

He then regarded me with interest.

“Jeanne, can you feel yourself to be a caterpillar?”

“Oh, yes,” I replied with the baleful knowing of a gangly, pimply-faced teenager.

“Then think of your own metamorphosis,” he suggested. “What will you be when you become a butterfly. Un papillon, eh? What is the butterfly of Jeanne?”

What a great question for a fourteen-year-old girl, a question for puberty rites, initiations into adulthood, and other new ways of being. His comic-tragic face nodded helpfully until I could answer.

“I …don’t really know anymore, Mr. Tayer.”

 “Yes, you do know. It is inside of you, like the butterfly is inside of the caterpillar.” He then used a word that I heard for the first time, a word that became essential to my later work. “What is the entelechy of Jeanne? A great word, a Greek word, entelechy. It means the dynamic purpose that is coded in you. It is the entelechy of this acorn on the ground to be an oak tree. It is the entelechy of that baby over there to be grown-up human being. It is the entelechy of the caterpillar to undergo metamorphosis and become a butterfly. So what is the butterfly, the entelechy, of Jeanne? You know, you really do.”

“Well… I think that…” I looked up at the clouds, and it seemed that I could see in them the shapes of many countries. A fractal of my future emerged in the cumulus nimbus floating overhead. “I think that I will travel all over the world and … and … help people find their en-tel-echy.”

Mr. Tayer seemed pleased. “Ah, Jeanne, look back at the clouds! God’s calligraphy in the sky! All that transforming, moving, changing, dissolving, becoming.  Jeanne, become a cloud and become all the forms that ever were.” (A Mythic Life, 141-3)

Years later, as Jean looked back on Teilhard’s effect on her life, as well as that of a few other such beings, she would write:

To be looked at by these people is to be gifted with the look that engenders. You feel yourself primed at the depths by such seeing. Something so tremendous and yet so subtle wakes up inside that you are able to release the defeats and denigrations of years. If I were to describe it further, I would have to speak of unconditional love joined to a whimsical regarding of you as the cluttered house that hides the holy one.

(The Possible Human, 123, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1982)

Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth

While news reports of recent days focus on the war being waged against Ukraine and its people, a solitary voice cries out in desperate warning about a different war: that being waged by humans upon our planet, our Mother Earth. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in the briefest of news clips speaks of the upward revision of degrees now being predicted for our planet’s temperature within this century.

Seeking the quote online, I came upon the transcript of a talk given by Guterres to Columbia University in NYC in December, 2020. Pointing out dire current environmental and climate trends, Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature.” Noting the ways in which nature is “striking back with growing force and fury,” including not only natural disasters but also the spread of COVID, Guterres stated that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.”

That clear statement sent me back to a book of essays, honouring the Spiritual Ecology of Thomas Berry. In his foreword to Dreamer of the Earth (Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2011), Ervin Lazslo offers us Thomas Berry’s analysis of the root causes of our ecological crisis. Berry saw the ineffectiveness of our efforts to solve it through “simply adaptation to a reduced supply of fuels” and by making modifications to “our system of social or economic controls.” Berry was convinced that neither our efforts to find cheaper sources of energy nor seeking to stabilize an economy in crisis through pumping money into it would solve our problems. He told us that the order of magnitude of what we face requires “a radical change in our mode of consciousness. Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it means to be human.”

Berry cuts through our belief in the superiority of our modern world over past ages. “Even the most primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe, of our place and functioning within it, a vision that extends to celestial regions of space and to interior depths of the human in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement.”  

Berry points out the folly that led humans to lose their intimate connection with the universe: “While former civilizations established our exalted place within the seasonal sequence of the earth’s natural rhythms and established those spiritual centers where the meeting of the divine, the natural, and the human could take place, the new effort, beginning in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century work of Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton, was less concerned with such psychic energies than with physical forces at work in the universe and the manner in which we could avail ourselves of these energies to serve our own well-being.”

Lazslo points out that while “these great pioneers of modern science were themselves deeply spiritual people with vast horizons”, their followers mistook explanations for the “mechanistic regularities observed in the natural world” for its fundamental nature. It was these Newtonians and Galileans who gave birth to what Berry called the “objective world”.

Berry describes this as “a world clearly distinct from ourselves and available not as a means of divine communion, but as a vast realm of natural resources for exploitation and consumption.” What we are living now on this planet are the consequences of this denial of the sacredness of the earth, the consequences of our matricide.     

Acknowledging the critical problems we’re facing, Ervin Lazslo asks what each of us asks, “What is it that needs to be done?” Lazslo finds the answer in the words of Thomas Berry: “What we need, what we are ultimately groping towards, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself.….this is the ultimate lesson in physics, biology, and all the sciences, as it is the ultimate wisdom of tribal peoples and the fundamental teaching of the great civilizations.”

How are we to evolve this sensitivity? Lazslo advises that we heed Berry: “We need only to listen to what we are being told through the structure and functioning of our being….the universe is so immediate to us, is such an intimate presence, that is escapes our notice, yet whatever authenticity exists in our cultural creations is derived from these spontaneities within us, spontaneities that come from an abyss of energy and a capacity for intelligible order of which we have only the faintest glimmer in our conscious awareness.”

We access the spontaneities of the universe through a vision that is dreamlike. As Berry writes, “In the beginning was the dream. Through the dream all things were made, and without the dream nothing was made that has been made.”  Elsewhere he says, “We are immersed in the depths of our own being and of the cosmic order itself in the dream world that unfolds within us in sleep, or in the visionary moments that seize upon us in our waking hours.”   

Is there hope? Berry finds it in the very extremity of our situation which he foresaw clearly in the years before his death in 2009:

“(W)e are not left simply to our own natural contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own being….”

“The universe is revealing itself to us in a special manner just now. Also the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature.”

(All Berry quotes are from The Dream of the Earth Sierra Club, 1988)  

The Great Wound

“Death is the great wound in the universe and the great wound in each life. Yet, ironically, this is the very wound that can lead to new spiritual growth. Thinking of your death…. you begin to refine your sensibility and become aware of the treasures that are hidden in the invisible side of your life…. These treasures are yours; no one else can ever take them from you.”    (John O’Donohue Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, HarperCollins, USA, 1997)

These two years of pandemic have schooled us in the great wound of death, first generally as numbers of those dying were being reported, then more particularly as people we knew suffered losses among their families and friends, as we ourselves heard of friends with COVID.

Some recovered, some did not.

In a culture that would rather push away thoughts of death, we found ourselves during COVID often deprived even of the minimized rituals of wakes, of funerals. Over these two years, when a death of someone we loved touched us closely either from COVID or from any other cause, we found ourselves left on our own, without knowing how to grieve.

The death of a beloved friend in recent days overturned what I thought I understood of grief and loss, of hope and love. Seeking a way to integrate this new experience, I opened Anam Cara. I share with you what I found in John O’Donohue’s writings on “the great wound.”

Imagine if you could talk to a baby in the womb and explain its unity with the mother. How this cord of belonging gives if life. If you could then tell the baby that this was about to end. It was going to be expelled from the womb, pushed through a very narrow passage, finally to be dropped out into vacant, open light. The cord that held it to this mother-womb was going to be cut, and it was going to be on its own forever more. If the baby could talk back, it would fear that it was going to die. For the baby within the womb, being born would seem like death.

 O’Donohue adds that the difficulty for us regarding death is that, like the baby in the womb, we only experience one side of the great happening. “…death is about rebirth. The soul is now free in a new world where there is no more separation or shadow or tears.”

Separation. Shadow. Tears. Yes. Yet O’Donohue writes compellingly of “the mystical wonder of our lives.”

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here…. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free. 

And yet, there is a lonely side to our embodiment. When you live in a body you are separate from every other object and person ….At death this physical separation is broken. The soul is released from its particular and exclusive location in this body. The soul then comes into a free and fluent universe of spiritual belonging,

Set free by death from the bonds of space and time, “the soul is free; distance and separation hinder it no more.”

And here is the place where my reading of Anam Cara began to awaken me to a new kind of hope:

The dead are our nearest neighbours; they are all around us. Meister Eckhart was once asked, Where does the soul of a person go when a person dies? He said, no place. Where else would the soul be going? Where else is the eternal world? It can be nowhere other than here.

O’Donohue reflects further: This suggests that the dead are here with us, in the air that we are moving through all the time. The only difference between us and the dead is that they are now in an invisible form. You cannot see them with the human eye. But you can sense the presence of those you love who have died. With the refinement of your soul, you can sense them. You feel that they are near.

Writing in the 1990’s with the opening up of Quantum Science, O’Donohue was looking ahead to future possibilities:

One of the exciting developments that may happen in evolution and in human consciousness in the next several hundred years is a whole new relationship with the invisible, eternal world. We do not need to grieve for the dead….They are now in a place where there is no more shadow, darkness, loneliness, isolation, or pain. They are home. They are with God from whom they came. They have returned to the nest of their identity within the great circle of God….the largest embrace in the universe, which holds visible and invisible, temporal and eternal, as one.

Seeking Love at the Heart of the Universe

In these lingering winter days of February amidst an ongoing pandemic, darkened by protests in Canada and political unrest around the planet, we need more than Valentines. This “winter of our discontent” calls out for an exploration of Love at the Heart of the Universe.

We begin with Mary Malone’s poem inspired by the writings of a Medieval Beguine: Hadewijch of Brabant.

Woman God of my Heart,

It is You I know,

You who beckon me into the nameless nights.

By day I scrabble for love

As the little birds of winter scrabble for grain.

But in the night of unfaith,

the long, nameless night,

it is You,

Woman God of love,

it is You,

 Woman love of God

that dares me

to open my soul to Your womanly caress,

to expand, blossom, breathe

in the darkness.

Woman God of my Life,

You summon me to newness.

Don’t let newness escape.

She the Lover comes,

She the Lover goes.

Don’t seek stability in this love

but know that only in this love

Will you meet the Woman-being of God

And stroke the Woman-face of God.

Reason has taught me to seek God

where God is not,

 in the given names and images and symbols,

in creeds and dogmas and commands.

But Love, the dark being of new love,

teaches me to touch the love being of God Herself.

Woman God of Truth,

Lead me into the newness of unfaith.

Breathe with me through this lightsome darkness.

Lead me through the nameless nights.

Open my spirit to

new love

new clarity

new fidelity

new truth,

 and again,

new darkness.

What joy to be human

and know ever and ever again

the nameless God,

She of the nameless nights.

(Mary T. Malone in Praying with the Women Mystics, Dublin, 2006)

Teilhard de Chardin, brilliant 20th century scientist and mystic, in his book Writings in Time of War (translated by Rene Hague, London: Collins, and New York: Harper & Row, 1968), writes of a feminine presence drawn from the Wisdom literature of the Bible, particularly the Book of Proverbs, (8: 22-31).

In her essay “Sophia: Catalyst for Creative Union and Divine Love” Kathleen Duffy reweaves Teilhard’s writings on the sacred feminine, working through its shining threads new insights from science, wisdom literature and the work of many “who have contemplated the divine creativity at work at the heart of matter.”  Duffy names the feminine presence in Teilhard’s poem “Sophia” from the Greek word for Wisdom, and says that Teilhard experienced this presence “with nature, with other persons, and with the Divine.”

He began gradually to recognize her everywhere — in the rocks that he chiseled, in the seascapes and landscapes that he contemplated, and in the faces of the dying soldiers to whom he ministered during the war….Teilhard came to know Sophia as the cosmic Love that is holding all things together.   

Teilhard’s poem opens at the beginning of time, at the moment when Sophia is embedded into the primordial energy that is already expanding into the space-time of the early universe. Only half formed and still elusive, she emerges as from the mist, destined to grow in beauty and grace (WTW, 192).

As soon as the first traces of her presence become apparent, she assumes her mandate to nurture creation, to challenge it, to unify it, to beautify it, and ultimately to lead the universe back to God. With this mission as her guide, she attends to her work of transforming the world, a world alive with potential.

Teilhard agreed with Christopher Bamford that “Sophia… can be known only in embodied human actions.”

 “Who then is Sophia?” Duffy asks. Here is her magnificent response:

 She is the presence of God poured out in self-giving love, closer to us than we are to ourselves, ever arousing the soul to passion for the Divine. From the very depths of matter, she reveals herself to us as the … very nature of God residing within the core of the cosmic landscape.

 Attempting always to capture our attention, Sophia peers out at us from behind the stars, overwhelms us with the radiance of a glorious sunset, and caresses us with a gentle breeze….Shining through the eyes of the ones we love, she sets our world ablaze.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us….She sits at the crossroads of our lives, ever imploring us to work for peace, to engage in fruitful dialogue, and to find new ways of connecting with the other. She longs to open our eyes to the presence of pain and suffering in the world, to transform our hearts and to move us to action.

Duffy concludes her luminous essay with these words:

Sophia was the source of Teilhard’s life…. Her constant care for creation during so many billions of years gave him confidence she would continue to be faithful… Teilhard vowed to steep himself in the sea of matter, to bathe in its fiery water, to plunge into Earth where it is deepest and most violent, to struggle in its currents, and to drink of its waters. Filled with impassioned love for Sophia, he dedicated himself body and soul to the ongoing work needed to transform the cosmos to a new level of consciousness and to transformative love.  

(from  “Sophia: Catalyst for Creative Union and Divine Love” by Kathleen Duffy, SSJ in From Teilhard to Omega edited by Ilia Delio Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 2014) 

Sophia and the Rhythm of Your Heart

Statue of the Madonna of Combermere

In conversation with friends, in listening to commentary from radio hosts, in online messages from a few wise teachers, I notice a recurring theme in these February days: fatigue. Not the welcome weariness that follows a time of satisfying work; this is something deeper, more subtle, more pervasive: a weariness of heart.

No need to seek its causes. These are evident in our daily news broadcasts: we are weary of COVID, weary of our valiant efforts to contain it, weary of the angry voices, the blaring horns, the disruptive actions of those who refuse to wait for the right time to lift mandates meant to hasten the end of the pandemic.

Where might we find ways to counter this soul-deep weariness?

Yesterday, driving to the nearby town of Arnprior, I crossed a bridge that spans a wide expanse of the Madawaska River just before it joins the Ottawa River.  All at once, inexplicably, I felt a sense of joy rise in my heart. I had been thinking, as I often do, of a woman I met only once several decades ago on the shores of this same river some sixty kilometres upstream. My brief meeting with Catherine Doherty had a profound effect on my life.

Catherine Doherty, Founder of Madonna House

A White Russian, a Baroness, who escaped the Russian Revolution, Catherine came to Canada, travelled to the US to work for a time with Dorothy Day in Harlem before returning to Canada with her second husband, an Irish-American journalist named Eddie Doherty. They obtained a piece of wooded land on the Madawaska River where they formed a lay community of vowed men and women, the first of its kind, at the request of, with the blessing of Pope Pius XII. Catherine and Eddy dedicated their lives to the Madonna, naming their Community in Her honour.

As a young journalist I drove the two hour journey from Ottawa to Madonna House to interview Catherine for the newspaper of the Ottawa Archdiocese. Catherine was a widow by then, still grieving the loss of her great love, Eddie, and nearing the end of her life. Confident that I’d prepared carefully for the interview with three intelligent (in my own estimation!) questions about living the Gospel “in changing times”, I was not prepared for the fire of her presence.

 Catherine barked: “The Gospel doesn’t change. ‘Go sell what you have and give the money to the poor and come follow Me’” After that she refused to answer any other questions. As I was leaving, Catherine  looked at me steadily: “You’re living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart, and then the walls will come tumbling down! Then I’d like to interview you !”

One day it happened, just as Catherine had predicted, though by then it was too late to return to Madonna House to be interviewed by her.

Today I still feel the lifting of the heart from that moment yesterday. Was it the memory or was it the River itself connecting me with Catherine’s spirit. I’ve come to know her through the experience of portraying her in A Woman in Love with a script written by Cynthia Donnelly a member of the Madonna House Community. 

At sunset I was driving home with the Madawaska River flowing by on the left side of highway. Where the river expands to form Calabogie Lake I glanced at the sky to see the tenderest shades of pink filling the clouds that hovered above the frozen snow-covered water.  For the second time that day I felt joy filling me like wind in my sails.

In James Janda’s play Julian, that great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, speaks these words:  “We have suffered in the midst of beauty.”

Sunset over Glastonbury Tor

I’ll close these thoughts with words of John O’Donohue that might have been written for us today:


When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time

Catherine, Julian and John. Three mystics and three sources of beauty: river, sky, snowclad earth. That may be all we need to see us through to the other side of the pandemic.

Women Rising Rooted

Brigid of Faughart Festival, Ireland, 2018

If we surrendered

to Earth’s intelligence

we could rise up rooted,

like trees.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

At the end of a frigid Canadian January, I have come to Ireland for Brigid’s Festival of Imbolc, the day that welcomes spring. Brigid is the one who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. In the front garden of my friend, Dolores Whelan, I see snowdrops….

Snowdrops Bloom for Brigid’s Day in Ireland

From a window on the upper floor; Dolores shows me the Hill of Faughart in the distance, aligned with her home. Birthplace of Saint Brigid, 5th c. Abbess of the Monastery in Kildare, Faughart is ancient in memory, a place where the goddess Brigid was honoured in pre-Christian Ireland.  Brigid’s Festival honours both saint and goddess. In the days that follow they merge in my awareness, become intertwined, embodied in the fiery women whom I meet: Dolores and the volunteers who planned the events of the festival as well as the presenters, attendees, poets, artists, dancers, singers, writers… each aflame.

I listen as they tell their stories, either as a formal part of the festival’s program or casually in conversation over coffee or a meal, or in a pause between sessions.

I listen as Sharon Blackie tells the story recounted in her book If Women Rose Rooted (September Publishing 2016). With a PhD in Neuro-science Sharon found herself in a corporate job where her inner self was dying. Through a labyrinthine journey, one she describes as the feminine form of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, Sharon followed the lure to the west of Scotland and Ireland, living on land near the sea where her soul finds a home.

I walk through Una Curley’s art installation of her own “Camino Walk”, her story of walking away from a life of successfully functioning in a corporate position that left her empty inside. Una chose instead the uncertainty and bliss of life as an artist. Una says the way to begin is to tie a piece of thread to a rusty nail and let the life you have designed, the life that no longer serves your soul, unravel… Part of her work traces the early flax industry of Ireland, rooted in the land, uniting the communities around the flax fields in a common endeavor.

Kate Fitzpatrick picks up her violin to express more profoundly than words her journey with women as they sought in the land and soul of Ireland the Healed Feminine. Kate’s quest was to bring peace and forgiveness to her people. The story of her spiritual journey with the Celtic Horse Goddess Macha is told in her book Macha’s Twins (Immram Publishing, Donegal, Ireland 2017)

Ann McDonald leads us in sacred movement, in breathing exercises, finding the power in our solar plexus. Deeply grounded, we release a voice that is resonant. Ann creates songs, receives songs that come to her while walking in pilgrimage or while holding sacred space. Her songs at the Ritual for Brigid’s Feast at Faughart come from deep within, inviting grace to embrace those present in the Oratory. 

Dolores, Una, Kate, Ann and Sharon are women whose lives differ on the outside. Yet I saw in each a life that is rooted in an inner passion, a deeply feminine connection with the land and a quiet walking away from cultural values that are out of harmony with and therefore destructive of the feminine soul.

I understand now that life can be found by returning to the ancient stories, the ancient spirituality that grew out of the land itself, a spirituality that honours women, that cares for the things of earth, that recognizes, as Rilke says, that we are of the same substance …here is his full poem:

How surely gravity’s law                

 strong as an ocean current

 takes hold of even

 the smallest thing

 and pulls it toward

 the heart of the world.

Each thing –

 each stone, blossom, child –

 is held in place

Only we in our arrogance

push out beyond what

 we each belong to –

 for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered

 to Earth’s intelligence

 we could rise up rooted,

 like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves

 in knots of our own making

 and struggle, lonely

  and confused.

So, like children

 we begin again

 to learn from the things

 because they are in

 God’s heart,

 they have never left him.

     (Rainer Maria Rilke)           

Brigid A Woman for All Seasons

In the Celtic Calendar, Brigid makes her first appearance at the Feast of Imbolc (February 1st ) coming in her aspect as maiden, as promise of spring, breathing life into the mouth of dead winter.

At the Brigid weekend in February 2014 (Galilee Centre, Arnprior, Ontario) Dolores Whelan led us in a ritual of welcoming Brigid into our lives. 

The knocking on the wooden door is so loud it startles us, even though we are waiting for the sound. A woman’s voice, strong, certain, calls out from the other side: “I am Brigid. Do you have a welcome for me?”

We have our answer ready, “Yes, we do.” The door opens. The woman playing Brigid’s role enters.

Do we “have a welcome” for Brigid in our lives?

What does it mean to answer her question with a resounding, “yes”?

Brigid is a woman of great power, an archetype, an embodiment of the energies of the sacred feminine, another facet of Sophia. Our welcome of her will open up our lives in ways we cannot foresee, cannot even imagine. But the hints are already given in the stories about her.

Recall the legend that angels carried Brigid over the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem so that she might be present for the birth of Jesus, assisting Mary as midwife. Brigid, who was born in the fifth century after the event….

John Duncan 1913 Edinburgh Gallery

Immediately we find ourselves in sacred time, in what today’s physicists, following Einstein, would call the simultaneity of time. Mystery. We suspend disbelief, allow our linear, logical brains to take a break, invite the story to offer us its teachings. Ask how this applies to our own lives. Listen.Each one of us is asked, like Mary, to give birth to the Holy One. In Godseed, Jean Houston writes about the heart of our call, inviting us into a meditation, a visualization, of how this might be:

Lying down now and closing your eyes, imagine that you are dreaming. In your dreams, you see light, and into this light comes a Being of Light, a Bearer of Good News, a Resident from the Depths. This angel says to you, “Oh Child of God, fear not to take unto yourself the spiritual partnership, for that which is conceived in you is of the spiritual Reality. And this Reality, if nurtured, shall be born of you and shall help you to…bring the Godseed into the world.”

And now see what the angel sees—the fulfillment and the unfolding of this Child of Promise within you….see and feel and know the possibilities, indeed the future, of this Child in you, this Godseed that you are growing in the womb of your entire being, should you allow it to be nurtured and to grow and to be born into the world.  (Jean Houston in Godseed Quest Books 1992 p.39)

This call to birth the Christ within us is as ancient as first century Paul, who wrote of being in labour until Christ is born in us. It is as modern as twenty-first century eco-feminist theologian Yvonne Gebara who entreats us to give birth to the Christic Presence in the Universe. Contemporary writer Diarmuid O’Murchu cites the words of the thirteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart: What does God do all day long? God lies on a maternity bed, giving birth all day long.

Reflecting on Meister Eckhart’s image, O’Murchu continues:

This is a metaphor we have known as a spiritual species for thousands of years, long before formal religions ever came into being….The Great Goddess of our Paleolithic ancestors was perceived as a woman of prodigious fecundity, birthing forth the stars and galaxies, the mountains and oceans and every life form populating planet earth today. God, the great life-giver in the pregnant power of creative Spirit, is probably the oldest and most enduring understanding of the Holy One known to our species.

O’Murchu concludes that: we are called to become co-birthers with our birthing God of the ongoing evolutionary re-creation of God’s world in justice, love, compassion and liberation. (Diarmuid O’Murchu Jesus in the Power of Poetry 2009 pp. 45-46)

 When we say yes to our call to give birth, we are embracing a lifelong partnership with the Holy One of “prodigious birthing”, a responsibility that has the power to take over our lives, to demand of us everything, to offer us a life that is at once profoundly meaningful, and intimately engaged with the ongoing renewal of the universe. There will be suffering, there will be hard work, but there will also be times of ecstatic joy, tasting our oneness with the Love at the heart of life.

“Brigid is the acceptable face of women’s divinity,” said Irish theologian Mary Condren during the Brigid Festival (Brescia College, London Ontario, May, 2015). Listening to Mary Condren, my understanding of Brigid expanded beyond her aspect of maiden to her embodiment of mother and crone. Mary’s research for a long-awaited book on Brigid is a seemingly endless process of pulling up a thread only to find a cluster of many more threads underneath. Now exploring the Cailleach (Crone) aspect of the threefold presence of the sacred feminine, Mary is discovering how central the Cailleach tradition was in ancient times. It seems that at the Festival of Samhain (November 1st), the maiden, mother and crone return to the Cailleach.

Irish Theologian Mary Condren

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 5th century abbess, Saint Brigid. Mary Condren longs for Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” that would bring the Cailleach/Brigid tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition.  

Mercy was the beatitude Brigid chose when she took her veil. Mary Condren believes that the difference between mercy and sacrifice encapsulates the difference between a thealogy (based on feminine values) and patriarchal traditions.

Brigid’s cloak is a symbol of protection and of the creative womb of the earth. Collecting dew on the Festival of Imbolc is an ancient feminine ritual. Mary Condren’s research into dew in the sacred writings of many religions (including Kwan Yin where the dew symbolizes compassion and in the Hebrew Bible) shows the longevity of this tradition.

The dew of mercy becomes in Christianity the blood of sacrifice, the redemptive liquid of patriarchy.

Mary Condren believes that Brigid’s life and tradition offers an alternative to sacrifice in the practice of self-fragilization, a willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable, to enter the darkness, to enter the well, and still to remain whole.

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.

The Imbolc question echoes: Do we have a welcome in our lives for Brigid?

Dolores reminds us that it is only in us, you and me, that the energy of Brigid will rise again, take form and become a force for transformation in our world. (Dolores Whelan in Ever Ancient, Ever New Dublin 2010 p. 81)

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives