The Wooing of Etain Part Four

We come now to one of the great themes of our lives, though we seldom recognize it when it happens to us. This is the mystery that lies at the heart of the universe. It is found in the most ancient stories over and over again, in the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, in the Sumerian story of Inanna, in the Greek story of Persephone and Demeter, and in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the mystery of life /death/life, the mystery of rebirth, the mystery of transformation. And here it is in an ancient Celtic tale.

Let’s take time to reflect on this mystery. We have become so accustomed to living within a culture where time is linear. First this, then this, then this: conception, birth, growth, maturity, diminishment, death. Though they experienced all these stages, our ancient Celtic ancestors, like indigenous peoples everywhere, experienced time as circular. They danced to its rhythms: night gave birth to dawn and day blossomed before it waned into evening, back into night. The Egyptians honoured the sky goddess Nut, mother of the sun, Horus. She gives birth to him each dawn and swallows him at dusk, gives birth to him again at dawn. In Newgrange in Ireland, the very place in our story that is the home of the Mac Og, there is a stone mound where the light of the sun, only at the winter solstice dawn, enters through a small slit and shines in the centre of an inner chamber.

Our ancestors watched the cycles of the moon, the turning of the tides. The women noticed how the rhythms of their own bodies, their regular times of bleeding, followed the moon’s rhythms. No wonder they felt at home in the universe, embraced by the earth.

If we could enter into the ancient ones’ understanding of time, the rhythms of our lives would take on sacred meaning. Our times of inner darkness would hold the promise of a dawn of new joy. Our losses would be seen as invitations to embrace other gifts, our death as birth into a new as yet unimagined life.

We seldom think about the rebirthing that happens many times in our lives. Do you remember the Gospel story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night, in secrecy, not wanting others to know he was drawn by this man’s presence and teaching? Jesus speaks to him in the language of death and rebirth. “Unless you are willing to be born again…”
Nicodemus scoffs: “What? Can a man enter again into his mother’s womb?” But Jesus takes him to the deeper meaning. “Born again of water and the Spirit”…. Jesus is talking about radical change, costing not less than everything, offering no less than everything we desire and need for fullness of life.

Were there times in your life when you felt as though you were once more in the womb? When there was no way to see where you were, to understand what was happening? No ability to do anything but wait and wait and wait, nourished by an unknown source, until the walls of this place of ingression squeeze, forcing you back out into the sunlight. Joseph Campbell calls this part of our journey being in the belly of the whale. We can do nothing but wait, be nourished, grow, until we no longer fit in this place, and like Jonah, are cast forth into active life. We find ourselves changed, changed utterly, perhaps only realizing how much when our friends and family no longer know how to be with us or we with them.

This is what is happening now in Etain’s tale.Back into the womb, into the belly of the wife of Etar. A change so radical that when she is reborn as Etain, daughter of Etar, she will recall nothing of her former life, nothing of what came before.

Now, the Storyteller awaits us.

Eochaid, King of Ireland, in the year after his succession, commanded that the great Feast of Tara be held in order to assess the tribute and the taxes. But the people assembled and talked together, and they refused to pay tribute to a King who had no Queen, and they would not hold Festival at that time. So it was that Eochaid, without delay, sent envoys to the North and to the South, to the East and to the West, to seek the fairest maiden in Ireland to be his bride.

As the months passed and, one by one, the messengers returned to Tara, each had audience with the King. He listened to them and conferred with his men of wisdom, and his poets, but his heart did not leap within him until, late on an evening, he was alone on the terrace of Tara and a young envoy asked leave to speak with him. The King bade him draw near, and eagerly, the messenger spoke. “Fifty beautiful maidens there were, O King, bathing in the estuary near to the house of Etar, in Ulster, and one more beautiful than all the others, at the edge of a spring, with a bright silver comb ornamented with gold, washing her hair in a silver bowl with four golden birds on it, and little flashing jewels of purple carbuncle on the rims of the bowl… There were two golden yellow tresses on her head; each one was braided of four plaits, with a bead at the end of each plait. The colour of her hair seemed … like the flower of the water-flag in summer, or red gold that has been polished.

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“She was loosening her hair to wash it… her wrists were as white as the snow of one night and they were soft and straight; and her clear and lovely cheeks were red as the foxglove of the moor. Her eyebrows were as black as a beetle’s wing… Her eyes were blue as the bugloss; her lips red as vermillion; her shoulders were high and smooth and soft and white as the foam on the wave… The bright blush of the moon was on her noble face… She was the fairest and loveliest and most perfect of the women of the world that the eyes of men have ever seen…” “She is Etain,” the messenger said, “daughter of Etar, and there is pride on her brow and radiance in her eyes, and it is said, ‘All are fair till compared with Etain.’ I thought her to be out of a Fairy Mound.”

Eochaid, the King, wooed Etain, and married her, and she matched him in lineage, in youth and fame, and she brought joy and happiness to the King’s House.

The Wooing of Etain: Part Three

Well, that was rather sudden and unexpected! The lovely Etain becomes a pool of water! A worm! A gorgeous purple fly!
What do you think of this? Let’s take time to ponder…

Water is the first of the elements to embrace our bodies while we are in our mother’s womb. So water is a feminine substance. And isn’t water a symbol of the deep unconscious within our psyche? the womb of new dreams, stirrings, possibilities, riches.

Especially in Ireland, water is honoured: its ancient holy wells are places of healing; its rivers were thought to be birthing places of the goddesses. The Mac Og’s mother Boan is of the River Boyne.

The water of life rebirths Etain. From it she emerges as a worm, and the worm transforms into a gorgeous purple fly.

The physicist Elisabeth Sautoris has devoted intense study to the life cycle of the butterfly, tracing the astounding transformative process that happens within the cocoon. Imaginal cells that will become a butterfly cluster to protect themselves against the older caterpillar cells which see them as invaders and try to destroy them. The clustering of the new cells gives them the strength to overcome the older form. And then when the time is right, at the Kairos moment, a new being emerges.

Have there been times in your life when newness seemed to be gathering within you? Did you then experience the old ways rising up within you, crying out, “too much trouble!” or “Why not just go on as you are?” or even “How do you dare to believe you are meant to be more? Be satisfied with your little life….”

Then, in your deep soul, did you feel the strengthening of the new desires? Did you feel them drawing together until they were strong enough to silence the voices of defeat? Did you feel yourself emerge into newness? surprising and
perhaps annoying your friends and family?

Think about these times… ask where you are now in the ongoing process of transformation. It doesn’t happen all at once, or only once. There is always newness gathering within us; there are always old inner habits, beliefs, holding
the newness back, trying to destroy it.

Now, the Storyteller continues her tale:

But soon Fuamnach discovered the happiness of Midir and Etain, and forthwith she came to where they were. Midir tried to protect his love, but the witch-power of Fuamnach prevailed, and straightway she began to chant a powerful incantation, and they could not see each other. She raised and stirred up a great evil wind of assault, strong and irresistible, so that in spite of their love, and of all the arts of Midir, Etain was taken up and swept away from the fair familiar mound of Bri Leith.

Fuamnach put upon her further that she should not light on any hill or tree or bush in the whole of Ireland for seven years, but only on the sea rocks, and upon the waves themselves.

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For seven years,  Etain could light only on the sea rocks and on the waves themselves

Whenever Etain, faint and exhausted, tried to settle on a shrub or a land rock, the evil blast blew her upwards and away. She had no respite, no rest until, seven years to the day, she alighted on the golden fringe of Angus mac Og’s tunic as he stood on the Mound of the Brugh.

“Welcome,” he said. “Welcome, Etain, weary and careworn, who has suffered great dangers through the evil of Fuamnach.” And the Mac Og gathered the tired purple fly into the warm fleece of his cloak, against his heart. He brought her into his House. Angus made a sun bower for Etain, with bright windows for passing in and out. He filled it with flowers of every hue, and wondrous healing herbs. The purple fly throve on the fragrance and the bloom of those goodly, precious plants. Angus slept in the sun bower with Etain, and comforted her, until gladness and colour came to her again. Wherever he went, he took the sun bower with him.

At the end of the seven years Fuamnach had begun her search for the purple fly. When she found the sun bower, and discovered the honour and the love that the Mac Og bestowed upon Etain, her hatred deepened. With cunning, she went to Midir. “Let Angus come and visit you for a while,” she said,” for the love between you is deep.”

Midir, in his loneliness, welcomed the thought, and sent messengers to bid the Mac Og come to Bri Leith.
Angus left the Brugh and the sun bower with a heavy heart. As soon as he had come to the Fair Mound of Bri Leith, and he and his foster father were closeted together, Fuamnach, by devious and secret ways, came to his House. Entering into the sun bower, she raised the same dread fury of wind and swept Etain with violence through the window and away from the Brugh, to be driven and buffeted, hither and yon, for seven more years, over the length and breadth of Ireland.

When Angus returned to the Brugh and found the crystal sun bower empty, he followed Fuamnach’s tracks. He came up with her at the House of the wizard Bresal, and he shore off her head.

Etain, seven years to the day of the second great wind of Fuamnach, tired and spent, small and pale, lit upon the roof of Etar’s House. Etar was an Ulster warrior. There were feasting and celebration within. As the wife of Etar was about to drink, Etain, exhausted, dropped from the roof and fell into the golden beaker. The woman swallowed the purple fly with the wine that was in the goblet. Etain was conceived in the womb of Etar’s wife, and afterwards became her daughter.

When she was born, she became Etain, daughter of Etar. It was one thousand and twelve years from the time of her first begetting by the Fairy King, Aylill, until her conception in the womb of the wife of Etar.
(to be continued….)

The Wooing of Etain: Part Two

We have just heard the first part of the Storyteller’s new tale, “The Wooing of Etain”. She has left us alone to reflect on the story as it ha unfolded thus far, to see how it might relate to our own lives.

The ancient times of Ireland, the seldom seen Faery people, children of the Goddess Danu, their dwelling places under the mounds, the power of magic that both creates and destroys… these elements of the story may seem very far removed from our lives.

Yet the Storyteller chose this tale because it speaks of desire and longing. Midir had so long yearned for Etain that when his foster son offered compensation for an injury, Midir knew at once his heart’s deepest desire.

This is the first thing I learned from the Storyteller: to know and to trust the deepest longings of my heart. This was not easy for me. Like most women, I had been taught to consider the desires of others, but not my own. I had been taught to distrust desire, to fear my own body where desire dwells.

Yet, in my time with the Storyteller, I have come to reverence desire as the opening to the sacred. I have learned to distinguish a surface desire that may be only a fill-in for what I truly want from the deeper longing which is the desire of
the Holy in and for me.
And what of you? What are the deepest longings of your heart? If someone were to offer you as compensation what you most desire, would you know at once, as Midir did, what to ask for?
Julian of Norwich, that great 14th century English mystic and teacher of wisdom,
tells us what God taught her:

I am the ground of your prayers.
First, it is my will that you have what you desire.
Later, I cause you to want it.
Later on, I cause you to pray for it and you do so.
How then can you not have what you desire? 

In my time with the Storyteller, I have come to understand that allurement is at the heart of the universe. The great physicists who have been called the mystics of our time, tell us that the whole universe is drawn by allurement: the moon is allured to the earth, held in its orbit; the ocean tides are drawn by the moon; the earth and the planets of our solar system are held in allurement as they move around the sun, even as the immense universe spins in wonder, in a great dance of desire and longing.

In the tale of Midir and Etain, we see that our desires are fulfilled at a cost: the great labours that Angus undertook to gain Etain for Midir, the price paid for her in gold and silver.

But what of Etain? Her desire was awakened by a long look, for the Story tells that “Etain looked into Midir’s eyes and that night she became his bride”. Her longing for Midir is satisfied for their wedding follows that very night.

Though this story is new to me, I have heard enough stories to know that this joy may not last very long…

The Storyteller is with us now and continues her tale:

Midir and Etain stayed together in the Brugh with Angus for a year and a day, sporting and playing chess for precious stones, drinking the choice wines and listening to the music of Angus’ three half-brothers, the sons of Boann, his mother, who were called “the Fair and Melodious Three”. Their names were Goltraiges, Gentraiges and Suantraiges, and the harps on which they played were of gold, and silver, and white bronze, with figures of serpents and birds and hounds wrought upon them. When Goltraiges played the Music of Weeping, twelve warriors of the household died of sadness, but when Gentraiges played the Music of Smiling, the Brugh was full of gladness and laughter, and when Suantraiges played the Music of Sleeping, there were gentleness and peace in the House, and in all Ireland the women whose time was upon them gave easy birth, and no animal was fierce in all the land. And so the days and the nights of the year passed, and sweet was the intimacy of Midir and Etain, and fond their espousal.

When the time came for them to return to Bri Leith, Angus, embracing them, said to Midir: “Take care, Midir, of Etain, for your wife awaits you at Bri Leith, and Fuamnach is a dreadful and a cunning woman.”

The warning of Angus was timely, for when the lovers returned, Fuamnach came out to meet them. With cleverness, she put them at their ease. She talked to Midir of his House and household, of his lands and herds, and of his people, but later, when Etain was in her chamber alone, combing her hair and waiting for Midir, Fuamnach came to her and struck her, as she sat, with a rod of scarlet quicken-tree. Etain, on the instant, became a shining pool of water in the centre of the room.

In triumph, Fuamnach went to Midir and told him what she had done, and moreover, swore that she would harm Etain for as long as she lived, and in whatever form she might be. Then she left Bri Leith and returned to the House of her foster-father, the wizard Bresal . Midir, without solace, and lonely, left his House to wander over the far lands of his kingdom.

Meanwhile the crystal pool that was Etain dried, rolled itself together and became a small worm, and because Etain was lovely and full of joy, the worm turned into a beautiful purple fly, of wondrous size.
“(S)weeter than pipes and horns was the sound of her voice, and the hum of her wings. Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the darkness, and the fragrance and bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from anyone around whom she would go, and the spray that fell from her wings would cure all sickness.”

She longed for Midir, and when she had tried her wings and gathered strength, she flew to the far reaches of Bri Leith, and when she came to him, Midir knew that the lovely purple fly was Etain. Everywhere he went, she attended him, and while she was there he took no other woman, and the sight of her nourished him, and the sweet sound of her humming would send him to sleep, and Midir would neither eat nor drink, nor dance, nor play the chess game, nor hear any other music, if he could not hear the music of her voice, and the sound of her wings, and he could not see her and smell the fragrance of her.

(to be continued….)

We Return to the Well of the Storyteller

These days the heat and humidity weigh on us. Let’s return to the cool deep well of the Storyteller. Surely there are tales she has not yet told us.

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You remember the way. We climb Tara Hill, follow the spiral path towards the south east. We arrive at the well, its low surrounding stones forming a protective wall. Here we remove our shores, bend down, grasp firmly a large stone for balance, then swing with the grace of an Olympic gymnast above and across the stones, letting our body sink upright into the welcoming cool of the water. Now, we let go. We sink down, down, down, pulled by our weight, until the right wall of the well disappears, pulling us into a womb–like opening that pushes us out into an underground pool. We swim across, climb up onto the rocky ledge. We are wholly dry, as refreshed as though just wakened from a sweet afternoon nap.
The Storyteller is here, seated near us, her dark eyes luminous in the shadow of of her purple hooded cloak. She smiles, welcomes us with delight in her voice:
You’ve come for another story!

The Storyteller gazes at us, scrutinizing each face, nodding as though she has reached a decision. It must be a story of longing and desire. It all begins with longing…

She looks directly at me as she says, Isn’t that what I have taught you? But this tale you have not heard before. You were not ready. Perhaps you are ready now. We shall see.

This is a love story from ancient Ireland, “The Wooing of Etain”.

In the early days when the children of the Goddess Danu, the Fairy gods, were defeated by the Sons of Mil, they agreed to make their vast and beautiful dwelling places inside the mountains and under the rivers and lakes of Ireland. The High King of the Fairy gods was the Dagda. He played upon his wooden harp to make the seasons to follow one another. He commanded the winds and the rains and the crops. His people called him “the good god”.

According to ancient custom, the Dagda sent his son Angus mac Og to be fostered by Midir, the proud Fairy King of Bri Leith. Angus’ companions were thrice-fifty of the noblest youths in Ireland and thrice-fifty of the loveliest maidens, and for all their great number, they all lived in one House. Their beds had columns and posts adorned with wrought gold that gleamed in the light of a precious stone of great size, brilliant in the roof at the centre of the House. Angus was leader of them all, for the beauty of his form and face and for his gentleness.

His days were spent in the Playing field, in feasting and taletelling, in harping and minstrelsy, and the reciting of poetry, and every youth was a chess player in the House of Midir of Bri Leith. Angus stayed with his foster-father for nine years, then he returned to his own Sid, Brugh on the Boyne.

One year to the very day of Angus’ departure, Midir, lonely for his foster son, decided to visit him. He put on his white silk, gold-embroidered tunic and his shoes of purple leather with silver-embroidered tips. He fastened his purple cloak of good fleece with the golden gem-encrusted brooch of Bri Leith, that reached from shoulder to shoulder, in splendour, across his breast, and on the Eve of the autumn Feast of Samhain, he came to the Sid of Angus mac Og, at Brugh on the Boyne.

The Mac Og was standing on the Mound of the Brugh, watching two companies of his youths at play before him. The first company rode horses of purple-brown colour, and their bridles were of white bronze, decorated with gold, and the horses of the second company were blue as the summer sky at early morn, and they had bridles of silver.

The battle sport was joyful, and the air was filled with the clash of arms, the clean ring of metal against metal and the lusty, clear-voiced challenging cries. Angus embraced his foster-father with delight, and they watched the play together, until, inadvertently, Midir was hurt in the eye by one of the youths. Though he was cured by the Dagda’s Physician, he was angered, and demanded satisfaction.

Angus readily agreed. “If it is in my power,” he said, “it is yours. What is your desire?”

“The hand of Etain who is the gentlest and loveliest in all Ireland.”

“And where is she to be found?” Angus asked.

“In Mag Inish, in the North East. She is daughter of the Fairy King Aylill.”

“Then it shall be so,” the Mac Og said, and at the end of the feasting he set out over the soft, cloud-bright fields of our many-hued Land, and came to Mag Inish, in the North East.
Aylill the King demanded a high bride-price. “I will not give my daughter to you except that you clear for me twelve plains in a single night,” he said, “and furthermore, that you draw up out of this land twelve great rivers to water those plains.”
Angus knowing he could not himself accomplish these feats, went to his father, the Dagda, who, of his great power, caused twelve plains to be cleared in the Land of Aylill, and he caused twelve rivers to course towards the sea, and all in a single night. On the morrow, Angus mac Og came to Etain’s father to claim her for Midir.

“You shall not have her till you purchase her,” Aylill said.

“What do you require now?” Angus asked.

“I require the maiden’s weight in gold and silver,” Aylill answered and the Mac Og said: “It shall be done.”
And forthwith he placed the maiden in the centre of her father’s House, measured the weight of her in gold and silver, and leaving the wealth piled up there on the floor, he returned to Brugh on the Boyne with Etain, and the ancient manuscript says, “Midir made that company welcome.”

Etain looked into Midir’s eyes, and that night she became his bride.

Here the Storyteller pauses for that is her way, allowing us time to ask, “What surprised me so far in this tale?”

“What gift have I received from this first part?”

(to be continued….)

Sophia: Love That Transforms Our Lives: Part Two

As I continue to reflect on how my life has changed since my dedication to Sophia, the sacred feminine presence, I realize my loving relationships have expanded in unexpected ways. Now the list of “those I love” includes a tree to whose presence I turn when I seek healing for myself and others; a small chipmunk who enjoys eating her lunch beside me on the back deck; a family of Phoebes who nest each spring above the porch light; the Iris plant that blooms in delicate splendour each June; the heron who moves down the river with slow grace, her wings weighted only with sunlight and soft winds; wild roses unattended, spilling gifts of perfumed beauty; the people I encounter, at the Post Office, the Waste Depot, the Library here in my small town.

Jean Houston teaches that when we love we become more intelligent, more creative, as we open to the patterns in the universe, as we glimpse the wonder of life and the wonder in ourselves. Speaking during her July 2014 Seminar, “Love in the Quantum Field”, Jean urged us to open the love receptor in all possible directions, the evolutionary and loving lure that has to rise in our time if we are to keep going. Patterns of connection activated by love are being brought out of the DNA, “bootstrapped into the culture”, Jean says. This transformation, this evolution, is taking place in our lifetime.

For Carol P. Christ, writing in “The Rebirth of the Goddess” (1997) hope is possible if we use the “human powers of reflection and moral action” that we once thought “set us apart from nature” to “create a new place for human beings within the web of life.” (p. 155)

Though thinking and acting (wrongly) have created many of the problems we and the Gaia body now face, human hope can only be located in the human capacity to think and to act differently about our place in the web of life….We act morally when we live in conscious and responsible awareness of the intrinsic value of each being with whom we share life on earth. When we do so, we embody the love that is the ground of all being. (p. 156)

Carol Christ believes that love forms the basis of morality:

…we have each experienced the power of intelligent love that grounds all beings in the web of life. This can become the basis for morality and moral transformation. None of us is perfect, nor can we be expected to be. What is asked of us as we work to heal the web of life is that we return the love and nurture given to us and that we try to contribute just a little bit more to the lives of all people and all beings than those who came before us. If we value our feelings of deep connection, if we love life on its own account and through others, and if we find the courage to act together on what we know, then maybe, just maybe, we can build a better future for ourselves, our children, and all the other children of earth. (pp. 158-9)

In her final chapter, Christ shares with us nine touchstones or ethical guidelines which she has discovered within her experience of the web of life. We might ask as we reflect upon them, how some or all of these might serve us in our lives, which ones we would set aside, which others we would add.

*Nurture life
*Walk in love and beauty
*Trust the knowledge that comes through the body
*Speak the truth about conflict, pain and suffering
*Take only what you need
*Think about consequences of your actions for seven generations
*Approach the taking of life with great restraint
*Practice great generosity
*Repair the web

Christ ends her book with this hope, this promise:

If we focus on the beauty around us, if we love life on its own account and through others, if we trust the knowledge that comes to us through our bodies, we will find the strength to continue the work of personal, cultural, and social transformation. If we speak the best of ourselves and others while at the same time speaking the truth about the harm that has been done, perhaps we all will recognize that it is in our own best interest to care about the survival of the web of life. Then we can begin again to create communities and societies that live in greater harmony and justice with other people, all our relations, and the earth body. (p. 177)

What shines brightest for me in Jean Houston’s teachings about “Love in the Quantum Field”, is her call to loving partnership with the Divine Beloved. This, says Jean, is the Great Lure that will draw us forward, opening us in love to all the realms of being. It involves an intensive practice, a daily practice of spiritual exercise, learning how to commit, to make the conscious choice of loving. “You will discover,” Jean says, “that the universe is alive and loving. As you move towards it, it moves towards you.”

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Sophia: Love that Transform our Lives: Part One

Once we take our first turning towards a Sacred Feminine Presence, welcoming her into our lives, change begins. In “Rebirth of the Goddess” (1997), Carol P. Christ writes of how the presence she names the Goddess altered her life. Her book reflects her new view of religion, politics, ecology, life, death, relationships, morality, the meaning of existence….

Reading Christ’s book has led me to reflect on how my own life has been altered over these five years since coming to know Sophia. I realize that the change began when I first recognized that there is a feminine path to the Holy that differs in important ways from the masculine path. The masculine path was shown to me as I grew up in a Church where the teachers, priests, writers, theologians were mostly men (or women who had embraced the masculine way of holiness).

As I have written earlier, it was the feminist theologians, writing in the last third of the twentieth century, who used their  intellects, their theological training, and their own experience to show that the “objective” masculine teachings, thought to apply to all humankind, actually reflected the masculine way to God. The feminist theologians found the heart of the difference between the masculine and feminine ways to be the perceived dualities described by Greek philosophy: spirit/matter, sky/earth, thought/ feeling, supernatural/natural, mind/body, spirituality/sexuality, man/woman. More than a separation, there is a perceived hierarchy where spirit, sky, thought, the supernatural, mind, spirituality, man are viewed as separate from, superior to, matter, earth, feeling, nature, body, sexuality and woman. This is a worldview where God is separate from creation, from humanity. To find this God, we must soar above the human.

Embracing this worldview, I had embraced an ideal of spiritual life that led me to distrust emotion, to value thought over feeling. to approach a drawing to love with extreme caution. I had learned to distrust my desires, my body, my sexuality, all of which, I’d been warned, would lead me astray, away from God. I learned to embrace an ideal of perfection, though I never succeeded in living it out.

Through the writings of the feminist theologians, I learned that to recover a sense of the sacredness of the feminine would be to recover as well a sense of the sacredness of the earth, of the body, of my feelings, of my sexuality. At this time in the story of our planet Earth, such a recovery is vital. The sacred presence of love lives within all of life, within the earth herself, within the creatures that walk, swim, fly, crawl upon and within her. Only this knowing can give us the courage and the strength we need for the work we are called to do with the earth as she heals from the ravages of our despoiling her.

In the sixth chapter of her book, “The Web of Life”, Christ writes compellingly of this call:
To know ourselves as of this earth is to know our deep connection to all people and beings. All beings are interdependent in the web of life….We feel deeply within ourselves that we are part of all that is, but we must learn to speak of what we know. We know, too, that we participate fully in the earth’s cycles of birth, death, and regeneration….
The fundamental insight of connection to all beings in the web of life is experienced by children, poets, mystics, and indeed, I suspect, by all of us, though we may lack the language to express what we feel….(p. 113)

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Acknowledging the difficulty of speaking of this deep connection “in the face of criticism rooted in dualistic thinking”, Christ quotes Jewish theologian Martin Buber who wrote of his “I-Thou” relation to a tree:

I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: as rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness…
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me. (Martin Buber, I and Thou trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970 pp. 58-59)

Christ finds in the writings of Susan Griffin a recognition of “This Earth” as intelligent and aware:

I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst, in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in very act does she survive disaster. (Susan Griffin in “Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her” New York, Harper and Row, 1978 p. 219)

A beautiful reweaving of dualities into wholeness flows from our embrace of Sophia/Sacred Feminine/Goddess. Here is Carol Christ’s celebration of the insight into oneness intuited by children, mystics and poets:

If Goddess is an intelligent power that is fully embodied in the world, then the notion that divinity, nature and humanity are three totally distinct categories collapses. If Goddess as fully embodied intelligent love is the ground of all being, then it makes sense to speak of intelligence and love as rising out of the very nature of being and of all beings as intelligent and infused with love. Human intelligence and our capacity to love do not separate us from nature. Instead, everything we are arises from the nature of being, from our grounding in the earth. (p. 123)

Daily Life with Sophia

Therefore I determined to take her to live with me,
Knowing that she would give me good counsel
And encouragement in cares and grief.
(Wisdom 8:9 NRSV Bible)

Midsummer: a time for dreams, for magic, for the unexpected. We celebrate Solstice as the sun’s light comes earliest, stays longest in the Northern Hemisphere while coming latest, leaving soonest in the Southern Hemisphere.

A memory returns of a Summer Solstice morning five years ago. I had wakened from a strange dream that I could not unravel. CBC Radio was playing Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” so I began to dance, hoping the mystery might become clear through sacred movement. Words began to rise from deep within me: “Unbind her and let her go free”. If the words referred to myself, that only puzzled me further. How was I bound? How did I need to be set free?

I phoned a woman whose wisdom I trusted, Jean Houston, my mentor, teacher and friend.
“You didn’t come in here alone,” Jean said. “Unbind that sacred presence within you. Let her go free.”

Thus began my relationship with a sacred feminine presence whom I am coming to know through the ordinary, sometimes extraordinary, experiences of daily life. For, as the Book of Wisdom says, I determined to take her to live with me…

Over the years of attending Jean Houston’s Mystery School sessions, I had learned a process for engaging with a sacred, archetypal presence for whom I had no name. I began a new journal. On the first page, I wrote the date, and on the next line my own name, followed by a colon.

Here is what I wrote first:

Anne Kathleen: Dear Friend, who are you? What are you?

On the next line, I wrote the word Friend with a colon and let my pen script her response.

Friend: I am the One who holds you in love.

Anne Kathleen: There are moments from my life when I sensed a presence that loved me deeply. Was that you?

Friend: Sometimes I was in the voice or body of someone – I spoke to you, touched you through a beloved other. But were there not moments when you sensed a presence of love when NO ONE was there?

Anne Kathleen: You are that love? That presence?

(Here I made reference to specific moments and experiences in my life, and the Friend added others…)

Anne Kathleen: Are you the Mother? Isis? Sacred Feminine? I do not know how to address you.

Friend: For now, just allow me to be with you. Names, titles, descriptions, come later.

That is how it began. I was grateful for Jean’s teaching that at first we will think it is our own imagination. But in time, there will be responses so surprising and unexpected that we know they come from something deeper than ourselves. For a long while, the nudges or suggestions I received from the Friend seemed so ordinary that I was disappointed. Seeking great adventures, I would instead be reminded about a necessary email or phone call, or a task I’d forgotten.

Slowly, slowly, over these five years, the daily writings have become a compass for my life. When faced with a tangle of tasks, I am guided as to where and how to begin. When I feel overwhelmed, I might be invited to take some time to walk to settle my thoughts and feelings. When there are important choices or decisions to be made, I am sometimes astonished to hear a writing voice very different from my own who offers another approach, one I would not have found on my own, one that proves to be life-giving and peaceful. Yet, I have not found this Friend to be all-knowing, for sometimes a situation changes in a way she did not seem to anticipate.

Her love has brought a profound peace to my life, one that eases anxiety, assures me in uncertainty, brings light into the darkest times. I am no longer alone.

I share this with you as a way of suggesting that if you indeed seek the awakening of Sophia in your own life, you may wish to try this journaling approach. See where it might lead you. Notice how synchronicities arise in your life, bringing you the right book/friend/opportunity to nurture your dedication to this sacred presence.

These days, the books of Thealogian Carol P. Christ  are light to me, as she weaves personal experience through her scholarship. She writes of her experience of being with her mother as she was dying:

As my mother drew her last breaths, I felt the room flooded with what I can only describe as a great power of love. A revelation had been given to me. Until that moment, I had always felt that I had not been loved enough. I began to understand that a great matrix of love had always surrounded and sustained my life. Since then, I have come to experience love as the gift of the abundant earth. It truly is the power of all being, the power I know as a Goddess. (“Rebirth of the Goddess”  Addison Wesley Publishers, Menlo Park, California 1997 p.4)

And from that same book, I read on the Solstice:

When we love concretely, intelligently, in our bodies and in concern for the whole web of life, we are listening to the persuasion offered to us by the Goddess whose intelligent embodied love is the ground of all being (pp. 108-9)

first Iris opens

Encountering Sophia in Sacred Places

The earth around my home is bursting with green life, flowering, spreading, growing taller in prodigal exuberance. A forest of Queen Anne’s lace has emerged, blocking the path where I used to walk. Impossible to recall winter days, the ground frozen metres below the snow. If spring happened only once in a lifetime we would never recover from wonder.

On these June days, I sit outdoors reading Carol P. Christ’s “Rebirth of the Goddess” (Addison Wesley Pub., 1997), watching the Bonnechere River take its sweet time towards the Ottawa. I read of ancient cultures where the source of the life that permeates earth was honoured as Goddess, that this deep knowing was eroded as warfare and practices of domination superseded the earlier harmony of cultures that lived close to the earth. Myths were shaped to tell of the slaying of the goddess by masculine power. It is a long, long story of which we have only recovered fragments. Yet glimpses of that earlier time of the Goddess can still be found in sacred sites on the planet.

Carol Christ, who lived in Greece for many years, exploring ancient sites, temples, caverns, found that at the site of an ancient temple, “there is almost always a church.” A memory comes to me of standing at the site of the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone about twenty kilometers from Athens. Our guide pointed up to a small white church atop a piece of land that had not been excavated. “That is a Church dedicated to Mary,” she said. “We find that a Church built to honour Mary almost always indicates that there is an ancient temple to the goddess below.”

Christ writes that “modern Greeks who speak their deepest needs to the Mother of God after making a pilgrimage to a beautiful place are not much different from their ancient ancestors who brought offerings to Goddess Mother. I began to light candles and open my heart in places filled by other pilgrims. As I did so, I realized that the Goddess had never died. She could not die because she was in the land, she was the land. (p. 42)

Three years ago in Ireland, I encountered something of that same presence.

roofless church with Mary statue on Achill Island

Its grey-black weathered stones still shaped walls and openings for windows, but the small church on Achill Island, just off the west coast of Ireland, had long since lost its roof. The June morning was cool, ruffled by soft winds, as we twelve women stood under the slate-grey sky around the plain stone altar. We had come here seeking an ancient holy well, dedicated to the early Christian Saint Dymphna, credited with healings, especially of those afflicted with mental illness. Dymphna was fleeing from her father, a pagan Irish king. Her pathways were marked by sacred wells, remnants of a tradition that predates Celtic Christianity. People sought healing at such wells, believed to be the openings of the body of our Mother Earth.

As we stood around that altar, we were aware that we were standing where women have been, in recent centuries, forbidden to stand. With that awareness, an inner strength moved within us, along with a joy that had no words.

One of women in our group read a poem by Denise Levertov:

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen
The fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes
found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched—but not because
she grudged the water,
only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
refreshed.
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,
it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,
up and out through the rock.

With these words still echoing, we walked outdoors, found our way through the old graveyard where in past centuries people from all across the island brought their dead for burial.

We found the well of Dymphna on a piece of low ground just metres from the edge of the sea, its small opening protected by a circle of stones. We stood there, ourselves a circle, praying silently for those in need of healing.
well3 on Achill Island

One of the women, kneeling to take a photo, discovered a heart-shaped rock, one side deeply carved and creased with lines of breakage, now healed; another picked up a stone with the clear shape of a mother and child. For both these women, the stones held a reflection of their lives.

I walked a little way past the well and saw a small stream of running water. Without knowing why I felt drawn to do so, I knelt and scooped up water, placing it on my forehead, on my heart. Later that day, I realized with a shiver of wonder that it was the 70th anniversary of my baptism.

That moment marks a sacred beginning as my life continues to be interwoven with a presence of love for whom I have no name.

Encounter with Wisdom Sophia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June2015 033
Reflecting on Ephesians 4:6, Elizabeth Johnson writes:
The One who blows the wild wind of life, who fires the blaze of being, who gives birth to the world, or who midwifes it into existence does not stand over against it or rule it hierarchically from afar but dwells in intimate, quickening relationship with humanity and the life of the earth…. Enfolding and unfolding the universe, the Spirit is holy mystery over all and through all and in all. (in “Woman, Earth and Creator Spirit“ Paulist Press 1993 p. 57)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Kathleen McLaughlin

Sophia with Another Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starhawk (centre)

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

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

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

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Ritual table showing braided crios

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

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

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

awakening to the sacred feminine presence in our lives