Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Goddess in the Well

One of my pendants which I like to wear depicts the design which is on the cover of the Chalice Well. This well is in the gardens below Glastonbury Abbey at the foot of Glastonbury Tor in the county of Somerset, England. The well itself was originally believed to have been built by the Druids, although the well cover was designed in 1919 by Frederick Bligh Bond. His design depicts the overlapping twin circles of the Vesica piscis symbol combined with a spear with a sprig of oak leaves and tendrils of intertwining holy thorn. In local folklore the waters of the well are believed to possess powers of healing and even of immortality – a sort of fountain of youth. In 2001 the site became a World Peace Garden. 

Two springs are found at the Well: the White spring, which is associated with masculine energy, and the Red spring, which is seen as containing feminine energy. It is the interweaving of these two energies that is believed to provide the Well waters with their healing properties. These energies are reinforced by the rising masculine tower of the Tor above the gardens, and by the receptive feminine form of the well itself. For these reasons, the Well has been a popular destination for pilgrims and contempory pagans who seek a contact with the divine feminine.

In the design of the Well cover we can perceive symbols of Christianity: the spear which pierced the side of Jesus on the cross, and the holy crown of interwoven thorns. Where the design is so powerfully effective is in its layering of deeper, more ancient worlds lying beneath this Christian symbology: worlds which invite us into the realm of the goddess. The sprig of oak leaves reminds us that the oak was a sacred tree. And its presence reminds us that, wherever we are, wherever we happen to be, we may connect with the goddess in the sacred grove which lies always within each one of us.

Vesica Piscis
The two circles are seen as the meeting of the worlds of spirit and matter. And the overlapping area of the two circles appropriately forms a shape known in Sanskrit as the yoni: the vulva of the goddess (the male organ is known as the lingam). In the imagery of our contempory world we have become used to thinking of the yoni as a passage of penetration by the male. But it is the very form of the Well that invites us to go deeper into these meanings, to see beyond this masculine perception of the female vulva, and to reverse the image from one of penetration to being one of a passage for new life, not just in the physical sense of the vagina being the birth canal, but in the deeper sense that it is also the passage of the soul from the realms of the spirit into the earthly world of its material incarnation. 

It is this deeper awareness of these forms which brings us into the presence of powerful creative forces, for from the yoni flows all life. It is the source of life itself, and a reminder of the journey that every one of us has made to come into the world: that journey from the realms of spirit into our own earthly existence. And it is also this deeper awareness which brings redemption: a releasing of the yoni from its crippling associations with the guilt and shame of Biblical sin, and from the aggression perpetrated against women as victims of rape, both in society and in war zones, for these violations are not about sex, but about masculine denigration, humiliation and conquest.

“I am a child of earth and starry heaven”, the beautiful hymn of the Orphic mystery schools reminds us. When on a clear night we gaze into the depths of the Well, it is not the darkness which is reflected back to us in its waters, but the compassionate goddess who reaches down to us from the stars overhead.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

God Will Nevertheless Be Safe With Us

This is my second post about Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman who kept a diary during the second World War. Her writing – and her whole being – made an indelible impression on myself and many others. 
Her diaries were no war-journals: rather, they express a love and compassion above and beyond  the most difficult circumstances in which she found herself. Her appeal to live to the full, not because of circumstances, but rather in spite of them, and to seek for the love within, still resonates for us today. 
The link to my first post, "The Piece Of Heaven Outside My Window" , an introduction to Etty and her circumstances, can be found here and on my sidebar. 

In one of Etty Hillesum's letters from Westerbork camp she writes: "As long as we make sure that, despite everything, God will nevertheless be safe with us."

What a remarkable thing to say - God will nevertheless be safe with us. How to understand this? And was this a farewell letter? Was she preparing herself for a definitive farewell when she wrote this to one of her friends in Amsterdam? She asks for a warm dress, and she speaks about well-filled backpacks. At the same time she prepares bottles with milk and tomato juice for the babies who will make the journey to their unknown fate. And here we read: "One mother says, almost apologizing: 'My baby seldom cries, but now, it is almost as if he feels what is going to happen." The cries of the infants swell, filling all the dark corners and cracks of the eerily-lit blockhouse. It is hardly endurable. And a name wells up in me: Herod." 
These heartbreaking and dramatic moments remind her of the infanticide in Bethlehem, and of the words of Jeremiah: "In Rama a voice was heard, a loud wailing and lamentation. Rachel cried for her children and did not wish to be consoled."

She writes, in the midst of thousands of desperate companions in adversity, letters which reveal her own grief about the suffering of others, and of what people do to each other. She herself searches for a peaceful little haven, for some silence. Exhausted because of her work in the camp infirmary, or, during long  nights, of helping those who are destined to go on the transport the following day, she tries to find some solace in her writings, sitting on whatever is available to sit on: a wheelbarrow, an iron bed, an upturned bucket - anything.

On one of those nights she writes: "I know that those who hate do have their profound reasons for this hatred. But why would we keep on choosing the easiest and cheapest option? When my experience here is how every atom of hate, added to the world, makes this world more barren than it already is. And I therefore mean, maybe childish but persistent, that this earth would only become more inhabitable through the love, of which the Jew Paul writes in his first letter to the city of Corinth." 

Not only in her relatively 'safe' room in her house looking out over the square in Amsterdam, even in the hell of Westerbork, she maintains her stance " be without hatred or bitterness.." - even towards her persecutors and executioners. 

It is love that keeps her going. She talks with God, calling it 'one long dialogue'; she rests in God, tears of gratefulness are her prayer, lying in her small triple bunk. In one of her letters we read: "When, after a long and difficult process, one permeates into these primal sources in oneself, and which I now wish to call God, then we renew ourselves through this source... I want to bend down on my knees, but I will ensure that my strength will not explode in boundlessness."
And in her diary she continues: “I can't stop writing, not even here in Westerbork; I would want to search for that one redeeming word, that one redeeming formula...
“Why did you not make me a poet, God?
“You made me a poet, and I shall patiently wait for the words to grow inside of me, words that can testify to all that I feel which I need to testify about, my God: that it is good and beautiful to live in your world, despite what we people do to one another."

Still at home in Amsterdam, July 1942, she writes: "I will promise you one thing, God, a small thing it is: I will not hang my worries for the near future as weights on today; but that takes practice. Every day now is enough in itself. I shall help you, God, that you do not give up on me, but I cannot guarantee anything. But this becomes more clear to me: that you cannot help us, but that we need to help you, and by doing so, we help ourselves. And this is the only thing that we can save and also the only thing that matters: a piece of you in us, God. And maybe we can also work together to reveal you in the wounded hearts of others."

In the care of Etty, God indeed was safe.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Calmly they approached, with the self-awareness that comes with the knowledge of their own vested power and sense of mission. Their apparel was opulent and exotic: the deep azure of far oceans wandered together with the ochres of the earth and the pure white of distant stars. There was a scarlet turban, and a headscarf of modest grey. One of the three wore a robe in which red fires seemed to burn. They came to a halt.

They bowed, and I returned their bows. "May peace be with you."
"And with you.” I replied. “You three are welcome in the fields of Efrath."
They asked for water, and I gave them my water pouch. One of them hung a chain of ivory-smooth shells around my neck. Then we settled ourselves down in the cool dusk of the approaching desert night, and they told me their story.

"We have come from the far east, where the sun does not hesitate in her rising. Each one of us is from a different region, but we are befriended as readers in the language of the stars. Our names will remain secret until the kingly child is born on the crossings of all roads. The western road will be darker and carry thousands of years of fear and decline. It is along the eastern road that we will travel back with new light in our eyes. The north road is melting ice on which no-one can tread. The south road is a basket of fruit that still must yield its bounty. We knew that in our lifetime the great star would appear. We began our journey as soon as we saw her rising, and now wait for her to be tethered in the heavens. We know that beneath her is the place where we are to bring our gifts. Even should we be forced to relinquish our authority, we choose to honour him. It is for him that we descry the stars." It was the one with the grey headscarf who had spoken. His mantle shimmered with ochre and white in the light of the rising moon.

“All of destiny resides in the star, and so our own as well.” said the woman robed in red fire, “But we also journey to the City of David. In our baggage we carry sweet herbs and soothing unguents, for in the Holy City we will dress wounds. Of the precious flowing  myrrh which I have brought with me, I will give half to the kingly child. The remainder is for those in Jerusalem. They shall know the scent and the salve of peace.”

“You underestimate the danger,” I said. “Jerusalem is a town full of spies. Whoever defies the will of the great Herod is made a ghost.”

"My power resides in the mountains of Ethiopia," said the woman. "To earthly kings I am untouchable."

“We have descried the coming of the kingly child in the stars,” said her blue-robed companion, “And we have seen that our journey is under the mantle of divine protection. Therefore we fear nothing and no-one. I have the purest gold of alchemy for the child. It shall be wrought into a crown when the time is right.”

“In earthly value our gifts are great,” said the sage in ochre and white, “but for the child such gifts will be humble. For this child will be spoken of in the ages yet to come, and by those yet to be born. Our names will only be mentioned in his presence, for to him they are already known, as all is known in each breath which he breathes. Our own words and deeds are no more then the scent which I bring to him: it burns and fills the air with sweet perfume, and then it evaporates. May the scent of the sweet divine have mercy on him."

“Do not go!” I said. “Do not go to the palace of great Herod. Choose instead your way straight through the fields of Efrath. Far from the worldly powers of the palace you will find the child. That is where you also will find those who are most in need of your healing and consoling gifts. That is where the story of your coming will be told in scents and rich colours.”

But they shook their heads. Either they could not or would not listen. Instead, they gathered themselves up in their finery, the array of their apparel shaming the white face of the moon. The three travellers gestured a farewell with the finality of destiny. “May peace be with you,” I heard the woman say, “for we anticipate a time of peace to come!”

Image adapted by David Bergen from a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Earth and Sky

We tend to think that the Earth has always been regarded as Feminine. Mother Earth, nurturing and stable. But has this always been so?

In the wall paintings of Ancient Egypt we find depictions of the Sky goddess Nut bending the arch of her star-covered body over her consort Geb, who is the earth below. But as times and attitudes changed to become more patriarchal, the sky mother and the earth father changed places, just as the moon became feminine and the sun became masculine – all part of the process of re-assigning the 'superior' and 'spiritual' elements to the masculine and the 'inferior' and 'material' to the feminine.

But is Mother Earth a real concept or a patriarchal one?

Venus of Willendorf
In the earliest times there seems to have been a strong emphasis on feminine deities. Apart from male shaman figures painted on the walls of caves, prehistoric carved male figures are exceptional, with only one or two rare examples being known. Far more common from these distant times are carved female figures – the so-called ‘venuses’ – which powerfully suggest a reverence for the creative role of women and the fruits of the earth. Masculine gods were apparently introduced slowly, first as consorts and subjects of the All-Mother, then as equal partners, then later as superior partners, and finally, in the current monotheistic ‘religions of the book’, the feminine deity has been willfully banished altogether from patriarchal theology.

Now there are many signs that the goddess is returning. Kwan Yin, Tara, Gaia, White Buffalo Calf Woman... in all her aspects the goddess is the bearer of a principle beyond herself. What is this principle that is so unique to the goddess? Perhaps it is compassion. 

But what does this quality of compassion truly mean? Not all women are wise, but  ‘wisdom' is a feminine attribute. She lives as a quality in men and women who search for her. She is prepared to transform any human mind into wise certainty - if you ask her, if you love her, if you search for her. In ancient Egypt she was named Isis; the Ancient Greeks and early Christian Gnostics knew her as Sophia, and she appeared in human form as Mary, the Magdalene. She pours herself into every soul that goes through the catharsis, the purification. Every refining, however small, yields wisdom - the wisdom of a woman.

But what is compassion in its essence? And how do we find the balance between strength and vulnerability? Being compassionate requires an active step. We 'see' the other, we are moved by that other and we act accordingly. Or do we? Karen Armstrong writes in her latest book 'Twelve steps to a compassionate life': "This is a struggle for a lifetime, because there are aspects in it that militate against compassion. For example, it's hard to love your enemies. We are driven by our legacy from our reptilian ancestors. It makes us put ourselves first, become angry, (and) when we feel threatened in any way, we lash out violently."

But an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

So we must look to our collective history, and within ourselves. In my post about the yin-yang (Symbols and the Tao), I mention that each opposite contains the seed – the potential – to become the other. The earth and the sky have at different times been thought of as either feminine or masculine, and if we identify with both, we as well can feel compassion for both the masculine and the feminine, so that neither dominates the other, and both exist in compassionate harmony with each other.