Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Shepherdess

The night is cold: so cold and clear
that the bright stars above
seem closer: so close
that just by raising my hand
I can touch them. And I do.
They are my fingertip sparks.

I pull my cloak around me
for a little extra warmth.
But I am used to this hillside cold
where my wandering flock grazes
here among the wild rue and acacias
of the high pastures.

My flock and the circling stars are my companions,
and when I speak to my flock, I know
that they recognize my voice,
even know what I say to them.
At times I also speak to the high stars.
Then I must listen so carefully, so quietly
to hear the soft sighing of light
that is their astral language.
Not all can hear them, and even those who hear
that gentle sighing of the night
can know what is being said to them,
but I do, and I know that the stars understand me also.

Among my flock is a little one:
an orphaned newling, born out of season,
still uncertain of the world.
I feel her warmth beneath my cloak
and she feels my own warmth.
She is quiet now, asleep inside my cloak,
asleep beside my heart.
Tomorrow, when the stars are asleep,
I will carry her down the hillside,
down from these high pastures,
and we will both go into Bethlehem,
for that is what the stars tonight have told me I must do.

Painting The Shepherdess by Robert Gavin

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Sun on the Stone

It is just before dawn. Around you is complete darkness, far darker than the pre-dawn glow in the world outside, for you are deep inside the underground chamber of the Irish megalithic monument known as New Grange. This particular dawn is special, because it is the dawn of the midwinter solstice on the twenty-first of December, and what is about to happen is also special.

Outside the winter sun starts to rise, and as it does a single shaft of light penetrates the long entrance corridor and begins to pierce the darkness around you. The shaft of light grows ever brighter as the sun rises, until it strikes the wall of stone behind you, illuminating the chamber, and just missing the design of a triple spiral carved into the rear wall. Then just a few moments later the phenomenon begins to fade as the sun climbs higher, and its rays can no longer penetrate the length of the straight corridor. In another few minutes you are once more surrounded by the impenetrable darkness, and all is as it was before.

The event you have just witnessed could have been seen by someone – weather permitting – on this particular midwinter dawn of any year during the last five thousand years, for that is how long this monument has existed. But there is a difference: five thousand years ago, the shaft of light which you have just seen would have struck the triple spiral in its exact centre. That it no longer does so is due to our Earth’s drift in its orbit. The planning of the original builders of New Grange was immaculate.

These ancient monuments speak to us of the sophistication of their builders, our ancestors. But even more than this, they speak of a time when the earth itself was a place of magical ceremony. New Grange has the form of a womb, with the long entrance corridor forming the birth canal. We cannot know the exact nature of the ceremonies which would have been held here and at other such sites, but that they were concerned with the fertile well-being of the earth is clear enough. Father Sun penetrates the womb of Mother Earth, and the months towards the bursting forth of new life in the spring can be counted down.

The infant Child, we are told in scripture, was born in a stable. It is an idea which now has become so fixed and familiar that it takes an effort to think of things happening in any other way. But they did. The word ‘stable’ is a misunderstanding of the original Greek texts. What was mistranslated as ‘stable’ is actually a word more akin to ‘cave’. 
The Child as well emerged from these mysterious realms of nurturing darkness, and a mother gave birth to the Son.

All the opposing energies – light and darkness, male and female, day and night – must be tended carefully and kept in balance with each other for things to develop and prosper, and for events to unfold as they should. And the dark earth might keep her secrets, but on special occasions the light will reach into the depths and illuminate the mysterious patterns lying at the heart of the beginnings of us all.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

God's Daughter

I am in love with God’s daughter.
She smiles at me in the glancing sunlight through the trees
She smiles at me in the tender thrust of an opening bud
She whispers to me from within the perfect singing of the small birds.
She loves me always.

I whisper: why does no one know your name?
I whisper: why are your tales not told?
Why are the stories forgotten?
Why are there no songs?

She sits with me, cross legged
And opens her eyes for me
My heart beating as I gaze into those eyes so soft, so true, so lovely, so loving

She answers me only with her open eyes and says:
You know the tales so true, 
you know the songs so lovely, 
you know the tunes so simple, 
so delicate so precious, 
they are not lost they are not lost, 
they are safe within your unspoken heart.

Safe within the unspoken night, 
the unspoken moon, 
the unspoken dawn,
we await the unspoken love of man.
Do not worry my brave son, my beautiful son, do not worry ..
The unspoken night is upon us and tomorrow dawns the newly spoken day


Song of the Second Wind 
by Samuel Stillmore

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Silent Joy of Advent

Today is Advent, the day in the Christian calendar which is the first of four Sundays which look forward to the coming of the Christ child. But need we view this day as exclusively Christian? The word advent simply means an arrival – any arrival which we might view as significant. In this broader sense the word advent also contains the idea of anticipation, and that anticipation in turn contains a sense of joy and wonder. We wait in joyful anticipation, which could mean the coming birth of any child. 

Those of us who have children, who have borne children, will know that once that expected child has arrived into the world then it is impossible to imagine our world without the presence of that little soul in it. The universal period of advent is not four weeks, but nine months – although the sense of anticipation quickens, becomes more keenly felt, as the expected time of the birth approaches. During this time of advent we make preparations. We decorate the new nursery, we acquire the necessary furnishings – the cot, baby bath, and suitable decorations in the form of mobiles, cuddly toys and other items. We, as it were, prepare the nest. And this becomes another aspect of our advent: it is also a time of preparation. We lay the way for the expected new arrival.

But while advent implies all of these things, and whether we have children or not, it still is a term, a state of being, which can apply to us all. In our hectic world we constantly face a barrage of distractions, from the chattering voices of social media with which we constantly keep in touch via our ubiquitous smartphones, from the pressures of commercialism which urge us to buy, buy, buy, at the very time of the year when we should be retreating into ourselves in silent contemplation and reflection. For this also is an aspect of advent: it is – or should be – a time of quiet reflection.

If only we can manage to be silent in ourselves, to still all those chattering voices which distract us, then we allow the true spirit of advent to reveal itself. That sense of expectant wonder is always present. Advent is in every moment. And that moment is universal. “Peace, be still.” were the words we are told Jesus spoke to calm the storm on that far Sea of Galilee. If we allow those words to echo in our hearts, whether we are Christian or not, and whether we celebrate the Christian day of Advent or not, we allow the true spirit of a universal advent to emerge, and we find ourselves filled with a renewing spirit of anticipation, wonder and silent joy.

Detail of Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Knight in Gold

Clad in armour of shining gold, an elderly knight carries two children across a river on the back of his black charger. Both children are barefoot: the little boy who clings to the knight carries a bundle of firewood almost as large as himself, the girl fearfully clutches her crimson shawl, yet trusting that the knight will carry them both to safety. This haunting painting, set in a peaceful rural landscape by Sir John Everett Millais, is very much a product of the late 19th-century when such evocative narrative paintings were the fashion of the time. The full title of the painting, ‘A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’, provides us with the name of the knight.

But in spite of his accomplishment, Millais found his painting greeted with protests and derision. It seems that nowhere in romantic literature was there a ‘Sir Isumbras’. The suggested narrative behind the painting proved to be non-existent. This painting which so strongly seemed to tell a story actually had no story to tell, and the entire incident was, after all, a fictional fabrication. The gallery-going public felt cheated, and protested accordingly. 

But what the public of the time seemed not to have realised was that the painting was actually an invitation: it invited each viewer to create her or his own story. The artist had provided an evocative image, and the viewer needed to do the rest. The painting does not lack in suggestions: in the background, on either side of the river’s banks, we see the buttress and arches of a bridge, but the central span of the bridge is missing. Clearly this is the reason for the children’s difficulty: they needed to cross, but had no means to – until the chivalrous knight appeared upon the scene to carry them across to dry ground on the other side. So the picture is about a crossing, and the crossing is made in spite of difficulties. 

We can find another narrative clue in the obvious age difference between the knight and the two children. Sir Isumbras clearly already has a lifetime of experience behind him. It is age lending a helping hand to youth. This, then, is a painting about contrasts, and we can see a further contrast in the difference between the ornate gold of the knight’s armour and the humbleness of the unshod children’s clothing. It is not just about age helping youth, but about someone of means helping those who clearly are less well-off than himself. It is about compassion and simple human kindness.

So often in our lives we find ourselves faced with such a ‘painting’ as this. We might be able to see every detail of the situation in which we find ourselves – but the details do not form a coherent whole, and the meaning of what we are going through, and why, remains perplexing and elusive – even distressing. It is then that we feel that we ‘cannot make sense of things’. Or we might be able to see over to the ‘other side’ of a situation, but cannot work out how to get there. At one time or another we all have wished for a kindly Sir Isumbras to come riding up and carry us across to safety when the bridge is down. But faith, compassion and simple kindness do exist, and if sometimes we feel like these two poor children, we also can remember that it is we ourselves who also have the capacity to be the kindly knight in armour of gold.

A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ by Sir John Everett Millais, 1857

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Amen. How familiar is this simple word. Even if we might not be someone who uses it in the context of prayer, we still might use the word as an affirmation. “Amen to that!” we say, when we wish to emphasize our agreement with something. But although it is a word in general use, it still is within the context of prayer that the word most belongs. But what does the word actually mean?

‘Amen’ is from the Hebrew, and simply means ‘faith’. As the closing word of a prayer, what we mean by ‘amen’ is that we have the faith that what we have prayed for will happen: that it will ‘come to pass’. So we can say that ‘amen’ is a way of saying ‘let it be so’. The word becomes a kind of seal affixed to the conclusion of a document: a pact of faith. But as can happen with words which have become familiar through much repetition, this simple word turns out to have hidden and unexpected depths.

In Hebrew ‘amen’ is spoken as ‘AMN’, without the extra vowel – which also is the identical same name as the principal Egyptian god Amun, which also would have been spoken as ‘AMN’. It is our own modern usage which supplies the extra letter. Think of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who had the god’s name incorporated into his own. Now think of the name Moses, so familiar from the Torah and the Old Testament. It sounds so typically Ancient Hebrew – until we remember the name of such a pharaoh as Thutmoses. Tradition tells us that Moses was an adept of the Egyptian mystery schools during the years of Hebrew exile. Two cultures which might at first seem remote from each other would seem to have more in common than we might imagine, and in uttering ‘Amen’ at the conclusion of a prayer we might actually be invoking the blessings of an ancient god.

But ‘AMN’ has another echo. It also is very close in sound to the Sanskrit word ‘AUM’ (also written as ‘OM’ or OHM’). ‘AUM’ is not so much a word as a sound, an expression of the soul, of the Self, and apart from its use in meditation, also is affixed as a written symbol at the conclusion (and sometimes also at the beginning) of a passage of sacred text. To package up these ancient cultures, to imagine them sealed off from each other, is to ignore the flow of ideas and beliefs that travelled the trade routes of the Ancient World as much as did the spices and other material trade goods. 

When thought of as a sound, this simple word AMN/AUM would seem to be a powerful affirmation indeed: so powerful that the mere voicing of it could in some mysterious way actually help to call into being that which we wish for. And what we wish for, in the end, is simple peace of heart. We wish for something, whatever that ‘something’ happens to be, to ‘turn out right in the end’. To open our hearts to a sacred sound is in a way to enter sacred space, to open the door to possibilities provided to us when we make ourselves receptive to them. And when ‘amen’ is spoken from the heart, then what is spoken before it takes wing, and all shall be well.

Have faith. Let it be so. Amen.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Wolf's Eyelash

If you don't go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.

"Don't go out in the woods, don't go out," they said.
"Why not?  Why should I not go out in the woods tonight?" she asked.
"A big wolf lives there who eats humans such as you.  Don't go out in the woods, don't go out.  We mean it."

Naturally she went out.  She went out in the woods anyway, and of course she met the wolf, just as they had warned her.

"See, we told you," they crowed. 
"This is my life, not a fairy tale, you dolts," she said.  "I have to go to the woods, and I have to meet the wolf, or else my life will never begin."

But the wolf she encountered was in a trap, in a trap this wolf's leg was in. 
"Help me, oh help me! Aieeeee, aieeee, aieeee!" cried the wolf.  "Help me, oh help me!" he cried, "and I shall reward you justly."   For this is the way of wolves in tales of this kind.

"How do I know you won't harm me?" she asked - it was her job to ask questions.  "How do I know you will not kill me and leave me lying in my bones?"

"Wrong question," said this wolf.  "You'll just have to take my word for it." And the wolf began to cry and wail once again and more.

"Oh, aieee! Aieeee! Aieeee!
There's only one question worthy asking fair maiden,
wooooooooor aieeeee th' soooooooool?"

"Oh you wolf, I will take a chance.  Alright, here!"  And she sprang the trap and the wolf drew out its paw and this she bound with herbs and grasses.
"Ah, thank you kind maiden, thank you," sighed the wolf.  And because she had read too many of the wrong kind of tales, she cried, "Go ahead and kill me now, and let us get this over with."

But no, this did not come to pass.  Instead this wolf put his paw upon her arm.
"I'm a wolf from another time and place," said he.  And plucking a lash from his eye, he gave it to her and said, "Use this, and be wise.  From now on you will know who is good and not so good; just look through my eyes and you will see clearly. 
For letting me live, I bid you live in a manner as never before.
Remember, there's only one question worthy asking fair maiden,
wooooooooor aieeeee th' soooooooool?"

And so she went back to her village, happy to still have her life.
And this time as they said, "Just stay here and be my bride," 
or "Do as I tell you,"  or "Say as I want you to say,
and remain as unwritten upon as the day you came,"
she held up the wolf's eyelash and peered through
and saw their motives as she had not seen them before.
And the next time the butcher weighed the meat,
she looked through her wolf's eyelash and saw that he weighed his thumb too.
And she looked at her suitor who said "I am so good for you,"
And she saw that her suitor was so good for exactly nothing.
And in this way and more, she was saved,
from not all, but from many misfortunes.

But more so, in this new seeing, not only did she see the sly and cruel, she began to grow immense in heart, 
for she looked at each person and weighed them anew through this gift from the wolf she had rescued.

And she saw those who were truly kind
and went near to them,
and found her mate and stayed all the days of her life,
she discerned the brave and came close to them,
she apprehended the faithful and joined with them,
she saw bewilderment under anger and hastened to soothe it,
she saw love in the eyes of the shy and reached out to them,
she saw suffering in the stiff-lipped and courted their laughter,
she saw need in the man with no words and spoke for him,
she saw faith deep in the woman, who said she had none,
and rekindled hers from her own.
She saw all things with her lash of wolf
all things true, and all things false,
all things turning against life
and all things turning toward life,
all things seen only through the eyes of that
which weighs the heart with heart,
and not with mind alone.

This is how she learned that it is true what they say, that the wolf is the wisest of all. If you listen closely, the wolf in its howling is always asking the most important question - not where is the next food, not where is the next fight, not where is the next dance?....  but the most important question in order to see into and behind,
to weigh the value of all that lives: 
wooooooooor aieeeee th' soooooooool?"
wooooooooor aieeeee th' soooooooool?"
Where is the soul?
Where is the soul?

Go out in the woods, go out.  If you don't go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.

Go out in the woods, go out.
Go out in the woods, go out,
Go out in the woods, go out.

Excerpt from "The Wolf's Eyelash," original prose poem from "Rowing Songs for the Night Sea Journey,  Contemporary Chants" ... reprinted in Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype  by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Stone Ape

Once, when the world was not as old as it is now, there lived a stone ape. This stone ape lived in a forest, because endless forests were what this young world mostly consisted of. It was rumored that somewhere far beyond the forest, at the very rim of the world, tall cloud-shrouded mountains nestled together. But no one was sure, because no one had ever journeyed quite that far.

The stone ape was a rather arrogant creature, but this did not bother anyone because there seemed to be no one else around to bother. Until one morning. While swinging through the forest the stone ape suddenly saw in a clearing below a figure. The figure looked human enough, but the stone ape seemed to sense that there was somehow something different about this one. Curious as to whom the figure was, the stone ape swung down to the ground and asked the figure’s name.

“I am Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.” Replied Buddha. The stone ape had heard of the Buddha, and dimly remembered hearing that he was some kind of great being. 

“You are great, Lord Buddha, but I am greater still.” replied the stone ape smugly. “I am stronger and faster, and can cover more distance in a single day than you could even dream of. In fact,” he added with a flourish of bravado, “I will! I’ll start out this very moment and journey to the very edge of the world. I’ll leave my mark there and meet you back in this clearing before the sun has set on this day!” The stone ape had hardly finished speaking before he had whirled around and set off, but Buddha merely smiled and settled beneath a tree to meditate. 

How vast the forest was! The stone ape had never been so far from his own territory, but the forest seemed to go on forever. Still the stone ape journeyed on as the bright sun climbed higher in the sky towards noon. For the first time the stone ape passed great rivers, leaping over them with what seemed to be a new-found strength, bounding along with the exhilaration which comes from knowing one’s own powers. The forest was at last giving way to more hilly terrain, and still the stone ape journeyed on with a speed which even he had not imagined himself capable of. Now the afternoon sun began to be shrouded in mist and clouds, and the stone ape sensed that ahead must be the mountains at the world’s edge. 

As if growing in power, the stone ape now reached up and grabbed hold of a cloud, swinging from cloud to cloud above snow-covered mountains and frozen rivers of ice. And when he saw ahead of him the tallest mountains of all, he knew that the edge of the world was only a little way ahead. At the very summit of the highest peak two great pillars rose up to almost touch the sky. The pillars marked the edge of the world, and with an extra great effort, the stone ape hurled himself on high and in the red light of the sinking sun scratched his mark on the two towering pillars.

But there was now no time to lose. Even as the sun was setting the stone ape set off again, speeding back over clouds, hills, rivers and forests, at last to arrive back in the twilit clearing where the Buddha was calmly waiting for him. 

“All that I said I would do I have accomplished!” announced the stone ape. "While you have only been sitting here in this clearing I have journeyed to the very edge of the world! And I left my mark on two great pillars that stand there.”

“Oh?” said Buddha, and held out two of his fingers to show the stone ape. “You mean this mark here?”

Retold and adapted from an Indonesian folktale. 

Painting by René Hausman

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Etty Hillesum's Vocation

At this time in European history, which is our own time in which we live now, we witness once more a huge resurgence in refugee migration. People are on the move, fleeing their homelands and the life which they led to seek in desperation a new life, away from the despairing uncertainties and dangers which they had come to experience on a daily basis. As Etty Hillesum tells us from her own time and circumstances of the previous century, such a fundamental uprooting of one’s very being is for so many not a matter of choice. The choice, however, is still there, in the form in which each individual chooses to cope with such change. Etty made the choice not to see herself as a victim of circumstances. But she went further. She chose to embrace those circumstances, to discover in them the opportunities for personal transformation which they also offered to her. Let Etty tell her own story:  

“People often get worked up when I say it doesn't really matter whether I go or somebody else does, the main thing is that so many thousands have to go. It is not as if I want to fall into the arms of destruction with a resigned smile - far from it. I am only bowing to the inevitable, and even as I do so I am sustained by the certain knowledge that ultimately they cannot rob us of anything that matters. I certainly do not want to go out of some sort of masochism, to be torn away from what has been the basis of my existence these last few years. but I don't think I would feel happy if I were exempted from what so many others have to suffer. They keep telling me that someone like me has a duty to go into hiding because I have so many things to do in life, so much to give. But I know that whatever I may have to give to others, I can give it no matter where I am, here in the circle of my friends or over there, in a concentration camp. And it is sheer arrogance to think oneself too good to share the fate of the masses. And if God Himself should feel that I still have a great deal to do, well then, I shall do it after I have suffered what all the others have to suffer. And whether or not I am a valuable human being will become clear only from my behaviour in more arduous circumstances. And if I should not survive, how I die will show me who I really am.”

Through her time with the palmist and spiritual teacher Julius Spier (see link below) and her writing of her diary, Etty had come to use and understand her gifts – both with people and with words. In the end, far from trying to get away from the Westerbork concentration camp, this led to her actually to wanting to go there – wanting to be at the forefront of life where people were hurting and where she could use her skills to relieve some of that pain – and tell the story of their fate. It was a twofold vocation fundamental to her identity, and in defining that identity she clearly saw, not only who she was, but who she could become.

Please see my post: The Piece of Heaven outside my Window

The painting In the Whirlwind by Jacek Malczewski symbolizes the plight of refugees (Polish, in this case) who flee their homeland, perhaps never to return.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Sister Stars

When the goddess Diana goes on a hunt she is always accompanied by her seven beautiful attendants. These maidens are the sisters known as the Pleiades: the daughters of the sea nymph Pleione and mighty Atlas, who bears the world upon his shoulders. But once these maidens catch the eye of the great hunter Orion, the pursuers of game become themselves the pursued. 

In their frantic headlong flight to evade the advances of the amorous Orion, the youngest of the sisters, Merope, becomes separated from her siblings. What to do? Poor Merope stumbles through the woods of Arcady, searching desperately for her sisters and calling out to her mistress the goddess for help. But by now she has run so deep into the thick woodlands that her companions are no longer within earshot, and Merope is left alone and desolate.

Does this myth have a happy ending? Myths are not fairy tales, even though they share with such tales many of the great archetypes which make such retellings endure down the centuries. Fairy tales, as we know, end ‘happily ever after’, but this is not always true of myths. Myths seem to occupy a less certain reality, which perhaps ironically make myths reflect the events of our own world more accurately. Gods and goddesses in these mythic stories are remarkably human, with all-too-human shortcomings, and their illustrious immortality serves as no guarantee that they will manage to avoid the very human emotions of heartache, jealousy and anger at injustice – all of which and more are experienced by them in these stories.

But is it that we project our own human emotions onto the world of the gods? Or is it perhaps more that all the upheavals of emotions that we as mortals experience are an earthly mirror of what happens in the lofty realm of the immortals? If the gods exist then perhaps they are showing us the way; showing us that even gods can suffer heartbreak, even gods can know joys and setbacks, tears and laughter. Even for the gods there is no master plan, and no guarantees that they will live ‘happily ever after’. Like us, they just live out their lives, and cope with things as they happen. But there is a measure of trust that things will somehow work out, and the gods, for all their capriciousness, show us the way in this as well.

And what of Merope? The myth does not grant us a tidy end in which she eventually is reunited with her sisters. We are left to wonder. But there is that measure of hope. Look up into the sky on a starry night and you will see Orion the hunter still in pursuit of the six Pleiades. The stars rise and set, but they always remain the same distance from each other. However fast he might run, Orion will never catch them. And somewhere in the heavens overhead is Merope, the lost little seventh star who is still searching for her sisters. And although the story in the night sky remains as inconclusive as the myth, it also in that very inconclusiveness holds out the hope for us that a reunion with her sisters might yet be possible.

Sculptere of Merope by Randolph Rogers
Dance of the Pleiades - Picture by Mynzah from a painting by Elihu Vedder

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Seven Devils of Mary Magdalene

In the short second verse of chapter 8 of Luke’s gospel Mary Magdalene is identified in two ways: she is among the followers of Jesus, and she is the woman out of whom ‘seven devils’ had been cast. What are we to make of this strange verse? The usual conclusion is that Mary was a little insane, perhaps even suffering from fits of hysteria. Interpreted more literally, Jesus is presumed to have ‘cured’ Mary by performing some sort of an exorcism on her. Within the context of what Luke briefly tells us, both of these interpretations seem plausible enough. But to what extent can we be sure that this is what this puzzling verse actually means?

Was Mary perhaps epileptic? Such conditions were then commonly attributed to some form of possession, in which case we are asked to imagine that Jesus presumably alleviated her symptoms. Seen through the eyes of the time, those devils had been ‘cast out’ of her. In the light of our present knowledge of such conditions, this explanation is entirely plausible – but is this really what took place?

Many texts were written and in circulation before Christianity emerged in the recognizable form that we know today. For every book in the Bible there were many others, and before the Bible came into being, all of these texts were on an equal footing with each other. We do not know who wrote these texts, any more than we can be sure who wrote Luke’s gospel and the other three gospels. But if we wish to look for answers to these puzzling passages in scripture, we often enough can find these answers in the books that the early Church Fathers decided to exclude from the books that would come to be included in scripture.

The Gospel of Mary – the only known such text which has been attributed to a woman – contains a remarkable passage in which, following the Ascension, Mary relates to the other disciples certain inner mysteries which Jesus had passed on to her. This passage clearly tells us that Mary was close to Jesus – so close that he entrusted her with mystic knowledge not given to his other disciples. We now would describe her as being indoctrinated by Jesus into the inner mysteries. Whether Jesus did this as a great mystic, as an enlightened being, or as the son of the Divine is a matter for personal belief, and in itself does not affect the nature of this special knowledge given to Mary. But what is this special knowledge?

In this text, we are told that under Jesus’ instruction Mary ascended through various levels or ‘powers’. She describes encountering the power which has “…seven forms. The first form is darkness; the second is desire; the third is ignorance; the fourth is zeal for death; the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh; the sixth is the foolish wisdom of the flesh; the seventh is the wisdom of the wrathful person. These are the seven powers of Wrath.” Jesus’ action towards Mary can now be seen for what it truly is: not some trivial and all-too-literal exorcism, but an indoctrination into the inner mysteries, which Mary in her turn masters.

We know that the writer of Luke drew upon older texts for some of his material, and the ‘seven devils’ episode would seem to be a scrambled version of these older mysteries whose true meaning was lost on that writer, remembering that the Gospel of Mary would itself have been copied from older texts. So the Gospel of Mary offers us a Mary who is indeed a wise and profound teacher, and even the closest to Jesus and the most deserving of his disciples.

We already have come a long way from the Mary of Luke’s gospel out of whom ‘seven devils’ were cast. We can now see her as the Mary who, uniquely among the disciples, managed to master these inner mysteries, not so much of the Kingdom of Heaven, but of the inner Self: which in the end is perhaps the same thing. Today, July 22nd, is traditionally the day of Mary Magdalene, and what better way to celebrate this day than to shed these outdated misconceptions about her and to see her for who she truly must have been: an enlightened soul who truly was 'the disciple whom Jesus loved’.

Bass relief beneath the altar, Church of St Mary Magdalene, Rennes-le-Château, France

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ave Maria

Ave Maria

Ave Maria, ave, ave!
Who has not sung this greeting
and entreated with heart’s weakened breath
for miracles fleeting?

Inexhaustible Well of Life
Mother Immaculate, Perfect One.
Did you your own misgivings feel
as mother to the Son?

Why do I not feel compelled
to worship you in childlike trust?
Perhaps because my own life’s course
treads a different and less certain dust?

Perhaps because the mother who was mine
kept distance in her own remote belief
as in unnourished solitude
I stood in silent grief?

Or perhaps because, a mother now myself,
I cannot work the miracles I need
to save my children from their pains 
and the rough desires of others’ greed?

Do I seek my own immaculate self?
Is that what binds me to you?
That you, in spite of everything,
allow me to draw near you?

Or is it that I wonder
at your own unquestioning belief
to bear your greatest miracle,
and in turn to bear your greatest grief?

Is this why others sing your name?
That in the arms of Grace
in sweet submission you agreed
to bear that blessed Face?

Oh Sweet Surrender, oh Sweet Awe
who teaches me the way
to live and also to let go of life:
Ave Maria, ave, ave!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Mermaid of Haarlem

The Lowlands in 1430 brought a year of terrible storms. The gales were so strong that parts of the dykes which protected West Friesland were breached, and the North Sea broke through and flooded the farmlands. But these storms were not all that were brought to the country. Among the many fish left stranded on the farmlands was (if we believe the wondering accounts written at the time) a mermaid.

A group of women gathering the stranded fish for an easy meal apparently discovered the unfortunate creature floundering in the shallow waters. Astonished (as well they might be), they somehow managed to carry the marvel to dry land, where she was eventually transported to the city of Edam, and from Edam to the city of Haarlem.

The Mermaid of Haarlem, as she became known, was provided with good Christian clothes with which to suitably cover her heathen nakedness, and seems to have settled down to this new life away from her watery home. She also seems to have adapted her diet to one of cooked meat, and was taught to spin yarn, and to pray and to make the sign of the crucifix. In short: the mermaid was provided with the essentials for a life in the Christian community in which she now found herself.

But these outward trappings of her surroundings do not seem to have erased her essential nature. Apparently she always retained a longing for her watery home, and every attempt to teach her even the essentials of human language resulted only in stubborn silence. How many years she spent as a half-reluctant member of her adopted community is not recorded, although we are told that on her death she was given a full Christian burial. Ah: if only we knew of her burial place! Would an exhumation reveal a marvel, or merely a prosaic disappointment?

Almost six centuries is a long time: long enough for us to wish that the story of the Haarlem Mermaid might just be true: long enough for us to hope that the story perhaps has a grain of substance. We seem to need mermaids and other fantastic creatures, but what perhaps touches us about her story is the notion of exile.

Let us suppose (because it is what we would like to believe) that the story is true. Did the mermaid truly have some sense of Christian reverence when she crossed herself, or was she merely mimicking the actions of those around her? And how strangely alien and awkward the wearing of clothes must at first have seemed to her. And what apparently was her resistance to human speech might have been more to do with her inability to speak at all, for who knows the ways in which mermaids communicate with each other when swimming in their watery home?

What we recognize in the mermaid’s story is the wish, however misplaced, to want to change someone to be like ourselves. We resist that ‘otherness’ which makes someone special, which makes them the unique individual that they truly are. We want someone to share our own beliefs, because that is a way of confirming to ourselves that the things in which we believe must be ‘right’. We misguidedly imagine that we can ‘improve’ someone by persuading them to believe what we believe, and to think as we think.

But is such persuasion a form of conversion, or a form of possession? We might excuse the actions of her captors towards the mermaid as belonging to the attitudes of 15th-century Catholic Europe, but such attitudes persist. Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking on your door are in their intention no different from the goodwives of Haarlem who taught the mermaid how to make the sign of the cross. 

‘To thine own self be true’. But the mermaid was a unique being among many foreign souls, and social pressures can be hard to resist. Perhaps we can begin by recognizing and respecting each individual in her or his own right, whatever beliefs she or he might hold – whether human or mermaid.

Painting: Oceanid by Annie Louisa Swynnerton

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Spirit Descends

This, more than any other,
is the moment.
I raise my arms to the skies,
I raise my soul to the mystery
of all that is, and is to come,
and I wait.
I wait in expectation,
my hands open, ready to receive,
my heart open, ready to be filled,
my soul open, ready to be blessed
with the spirit on this, my Pentecost.

O marvelous fire
I beseech you,
fill my hands with gratitude,
fill my heart with your love,
fill my soul with your blessings,
with your sweet burning,
with your flame
which lights but does not sear,
with your incandescent grace.

O sweet mystery
you are my hands filled with gratitude,
you are my heart filled with love,
you are my soul filled with blessings,
you are all my pain, not vanquished,
but made sweet.
You are the arc of heaven
which bends with grace above me,
you are this great ocean
which I stand before
in wondering silence,
You are all that I am:
You are me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sacred Friend

There we sat on the beach, our hands with the playful fingers, always ready to let the sand run through them, now quietly resting on the same sand - while he was talking, and I was listening. At first he was searching for words, and somewhat reluctant to release them, to let them free in the air where they could either rise up to the light or fall silent on the sand. They fell, his words, in good earth they fell. Those words, coming from the depth of his soul.

They painted before me a man who made himself a mirror and did not shun his reflection. He looked at every incompleteness, every flaw and imperfection, and fought the fight of his life, like Jacob wrestling with his angel. It wore him down time and again, and his heart broke manyfold, but he did not flinch. He observed himself, he studied his inner and outer being. Gradually his reflection began to change form until one day it disappeared and even the mirror dissolved like a base metal in an alchemic process. 

Born again, he looked at the man that he had become - a man who had won, not only the battle, but also had ended the war against himself. The battle he had won was the victory over his small self - the victory over judgement and dualism. He had gained compassion, and more. No longer unaware, he had gained bliss. Pure bliss.

My silence was not mute. My silence spoke, while his words reached my open hands, and my heart. 

Painting by Hendrik Mesdag

Monday, May 11, 2015

Above the Infinite Rest

I confess that at times I almost become used to the beautiful art which my dear husband creates. He is who he is, and that's the way things are. Now he has written a poem and created it as a video, using as a background a painting by Isaac Levitan, one of his own favourite artists, and set it to the haunting music of Deuter. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Golden Apples

Far to the west, so far that it almost balances on the rim at the edge of the world, lies an island. Being an enchanted place, this particular island is the home of beings not encountered in our own everyday world, but if we are fortunate we may perhaps visit it in our dreams. Were we to do so, we would encounter three beautiful nymphs known as the Hesperides, who are the daughters of the sunset. For when at day’s end the golden sun slips beneath the world to begin its journey through the starry realms of night, the nymphs are the last beings to bid it farewell until the following dawn.

On this enchanted isle grows the sacred tree of Hera, the consort of great Zeus. This remarkable tree, which was grown from the fruit that was a wedding gift from Gaia, the earth goddess, bears apples of pure gold whose possession will grant precious immortality to anyone who owns them. It is the task of the Hesperides to guard these apples well, and to keep a watchful eye on the three nymphs and to make sure that they are fulfilling their task, a huge and terrible serpent twines its glinting coils around the tree’s trunk.

In this idyllic scene we recognize all the elements of enchantment: a sunset island set apart from the world, three beautiful nymphs, a fearsome guardian serpent, and a tree which bears miraculous fruit. It echoes other such scenes familiar to us from other stories and other places: Idun, goddess of spring and rebirth, who, in the Islandic Edda, took care of the golden apples, the poisoned apple in the story of Snow White, and the tree and the serpent that dwells in the Garden of Eden. And like the Eden story in the Book of Genesis, we are aware that in order for things to happen, in order for the story to progress further, the walls of enchantment have to be breached.

On the island of the Hesperides that disruptive influence arrives in the form of the goddess Eris, whose very name means ‘Discord’. Exactly how this troublesome goddess managed what she did is unclear. Perhaps she tricked the guardian serpent, or perhaps she caused some quarrel to break out between the three peaceable nymphs. The result is the same: Eris leaves the enchanted island with one of the apples in her possession. Being the devious goddess that she is, Eris has little interest in keeping the apple for herself. She is, after all, already immortal. No, her plan for the precious apple is much more insidious. The goddess writes on the apple the three beguiling words: “To the fairest”, and tosses it into the midst of a feast of the gods on Olympus. 

The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena naturally all claim that the apple is intended for them, and the mortal, Prince Paris, is brought in to settle the dispute. Beautiful Aphrodite sways the outcome in her favour with a simple but irresistible bribe: she promises Paris the hand of the fairest of mortals, Helen, who would become known as Helen of Troy, if the prince will decide in her favour. With such a prize on offer, the outcome is never in doubt. Paris claims what the goddess of love has granted, kidnaps Helen – and the terrible and tragic seed which leads to the drawn-out and deadly Trojan War is sown.

One small act carried out with mischievous intent can set in motion a whole chain of events whose outcome cannot be foreseen – not even by the individual who set those events in motion. Neither gods nor mortals can control those events, which, like ripples which disturb the surface of a still pond, continue to spread beyond the cause that started them. The three Hesperides must mourn the loss of the precious fruit entrusted to them. But perhaps the apple of Discord did grant a certain measure of immortality. So many centuries later, we still know the names and can relate the stories of those who feature in these ancient tales. And we can trace the events in our own lives which might reflect them, and each in our own way work, like the Hesperides, to come to terms with what has been taken from us. 

Painting: The Garden of the Hesperides, by Frederic, Lord Leighton.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Mystic Heart

Many of the posts which you may read here are about mystics. We tend for convenience to label these mystics according to when they lived. There are the mystics of the Ancient World, such as Pythagoras, and Pythia, the Delphic oracle, who was believed to be possessed by the god Apollo when she uttered her mysterious pronouncements. There are the mystics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Hildegard von Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich are four such mystics whose remarkable visions and insights seem at times to penetrate to the very heart of greater mysteries. And there are the contemporary mystics of our own times, such as Kahlil Gibran, Etty Hillesum and Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings offer profound insights into the human condition, and so touch us all.

We can name all these names, and we collectively call them mystics, but is it possible to find some defining thread of meaning and experience that would allow us actually to say what a mystic is? Perhaps if this were possible, it might bring us a step closer , not just to understanding them, but to experience in some way the things which they experienced, to share with them these remarkable insights which go deeper than our own everyday experiences.

One thing is very clear, even from this brief list of names: mysticism is gender-blind. Both men and women were and are regarded as mystics of equal stature. Even in a church whose hierarchy was and is essentially male-dominated, the mystics of the Middle Ages often were women who moved in a man’s world, and still made their mark on history. I think of Hildegard, who in contemporary accounts was described as being small and slight of stature, but who nevertheless negotiated her way through a world dominated by the bishops who were her superiors to gain respect and recognition for her visions and insights.

But if gender is irrelevant to mystic experience, what qualities tie such mystics together? What line binds Pythia to Hildegard, so remote in time from each other? What links the Lebanese Gibran to the Bengali Tagore, who might have been separated by their different cultures, but who nevertheless were each other’s contemporaries? We might say the obvious, and name their devotion to their beliefs. All mystics were on a quest, and this quest took the form of a need, even a passionate desire, to have a contact in some form with a deeper aspect of their faith. For a mystic, doctrine was not enough. A mystic desired something more, something beyond the borders that others had erected around their particular faith. A mystic was – and is – seeking a direct experience of the Divine.

Such a path cannot be trodden by careful route planning, by wondering what we are going to do next, by thinking carefully about the thoughts that might or might not guide us. Such thoughts are only distractions. A mystic does not walk a path. A mystic is the path, and total trust and surrender are the companions along the way. Every movement is a movement made in love, and every gesture is a gesture of love, of love for the inexpressible Divine. 

When Julian of Norwich said that ‘all shall be well’, I do not believe that it was an expression of hope. I feel that she made the statement out of total certainty. She knew with every fibre of her being that it would be so, even though the end of her journey was not yet in sight. 

Photo: sculpture Teresa of Avila by Fr. Lawrence Lew

Monday, March 30, 2015

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Who was Mary Magdalene? Church tradition tells us that she was the ‘repentant sinner’ who in Luke’s gospel washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, before drying them with her long hair and anointing them with precious ointment from an alabaster jar. This is the way in which Mary has been portrayed countless times in art, but this idea of her is based upon a mistaken assumption by Pope Gregory I in the 6th-century, who seems to have confused Mary, the sister of Martha, with Mary Magdalene – a confusion of names which has turned into a traditional portrayal of Mary Magdalene as ‘the woman with the alabaster jar’.

How is it possible, then, that what seems to be such an obvious misunderstanding about these passages in scripture could last for fourteen long centuries? A story which endures for so long tends to point to greater truths. Can we reach beyond this early pope’s misunderstanding to discover why this image of Mary has had such a powerful hold on the human imagination?

Some three centuries before the pope made his erroneous assumption, a manuscript was written that would lay undiscovered in the Egyptian sands before being rediscovered many centuries later in an ancient rubbish dump near the town of Oxyrhynchus – a valuable archaeological site which has also yielded some of the poetry of Sappho. The manuscript is now known as the Gospel of Mary. It offers us a very different picture of Mary Magdalene from the Mary of church tradition: a Mary who is the most loved of Jesus’ disciples, who is the closest to him, and to whom he entrusts the inner mysteries of his teachings. In this rediscovered gospel Mary offers these teachings to the other disciples: instructions about the visions of the mind, the perceptions of the spirit, and the ascent of the soul. 

Intriguingly, we are told that Mary addressed these teachings to her ‘brothers and sisters’, making it clear that other female disciples were present, and were therefore also among this inner circle of followers. Mary tells these things to the disciples after Jesus’ last post-resurrection appearance. The other disciples are feeling alone, afraid and demoralized, but it is Mary who rallies them, who urges them to keep their courage, and who assures them that they are not alone. In this text Mary emerges as a woman of deep spiritual insight, personal courage and dignity. Is there any way in which we might square this very different Mary of the gospel which bears her name with the Mary who holds the ‘alabaster jar’ of church tradition?

The woman is the vessel. She is the bearer of new life, and so is also the bearer of the most treasured and valued mystic secrets. The awe which surrounds the woman as the carrier of the miracle of life has been expressed in figurines carved from mammoth ivory many thousands of years old. To hold these mysteries is to hold a vessel, whether that vessel is expressed in the idea of the womb itself, or in the Holy Grail, or in an alabaster jar whose contents are described as the most precious and costly of all.

In the expression of this larger truth, we might come to realize that in this sense Mary Magdalene is all women, and all women are Mary Magdalene. And what at first might seem like misinterpretations of scripture are actually reflections of far larger realities, and these realities lie beyond the control of mere human misunderstandings.