Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Lily of Life


In the middle of the black water, growing in stately solitude, was a lily – a lily from which an intensely brilliant light seemed to pour. A lily so dazzling, so perfect, so supernaturally pure, that the only sensation that possessed the soul at the sight was the desire to sink on one's knees and adore it. It was larger than any lily Corona had ever seen, but of the same shape and kind as those she had in her own garden at home. Yet before this one her heart seemed to feel an extraordinary peace, an extraordinary longing for better things, a wonderful happiness that spread through body and soul, giving her the sensation that she was a spirit from a better world, with no desire but to let her heart melt in infinite gladness in a song of praise. She knelt down at the water's edge, hid her face in her hands, and cried, cried tears that seemed to wash away all the evil in human nature, all the suffering and pain, all the struggles, all the partings and disappointments. And all her own grief seemed to melt away, relieving her overburdened heart of its suffering. And as her tears touched the marble floor, they turned into pure pearls – pearls like those the wise woman wore round her neck; they rolled one by one into the black water, each forming little circles of light on the dark surface; and the circles spread, widened, rippling away in silver, little waves.

But soon she dried her tears, for she knew that to get to the flower she must descend into those dark depths, and once more the horror of death seemed to cross her soul.


Excerpt from "The Lily of Life" Marie of Romania (Marie Alexandra Victoria; 29 October 1875 – 18 July 1938), also known as Marie of Edinburgh, was the last Queen of Romania as the wife of King Ferdinand I.

Illustration by Helen Stratton, 1867-1961.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Woman in the Wall

The bishop stands watching as the two workmen cement the stones into position. Row upon row the stones rise from the cold floor of the vast church interior. But the bishop’s gaze is not so much directed towards the activity of the workmen as it is upon the woman who is gradually being lost to view behind the rising wall of stones.

The woman is dressed in a loose garment of coarsely-woven cloth, and is seated on a simple wooden stool with her hands resting calmly in her lap. Her eyes do not meet the bishop’s gaze, but instead are directed towards the flagstones on the floor, as if she already is lost to the world beyond her increasingly limited view. The workmen work on until only the far wall of stones is dimly seen in the darkness beyond, and then… nothing. The bishop affixes his seal to the masonry. At the still-young age of thirty Sister Bertken has begun her life of voluntary confinement, walled-up in a cell less than four meters square. For her it is the beginning of a life of prayer and meditation that she will follow for the rest of her days.

A small aperture in the stones which aligns with the church altar has been left so that Sister Bertken may follow the services, and another opening at the rear of the cell allows for the necessary food to be passed through to her. She is allowed neither meat nor dairy products, and her food is of the simplest fare. Her bed is a palette on the floor. She wears no shoes, and is allowed only the comparative luxury of a pelt of fur in winter to stave off the freezing cold from the flagstones beneath her naked feet.

We are in the Buur Church in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands of the 15th-century, and Sister Bertken, born Berta Jacobsdochter, is not the only recluse to have herself walled up alive in such a way. It seems that such recluses strove to emulate the examples of the recluses of former centuries who chose to live in the solitary vastness of the desert. In northern Europe there are no desert wildernesses, so solitude was sought in the hearts of the cities – and what more profound solitude is there than a small dark cell with no way out?

Sister Bertken began her voluntary seclusion in 1457, and remained within the sealed walls of her small cell until her death in 1514: a near-incomprehensible fifty-seven years of voluntary incarceration until her death at the age of eighty-seven. Apparently the local parishioners would come to her cell to seek advice, and she was always ready with a kindly word.

There is a tradition that Sister Bertken was buried beneath the floor of her cell. Perhaps this seems fitting, for even in death, how after so many decades of confinement could she return to the outside world, even for her own burial? But all traces of her cell in the church have now long disappeared, and its precise location remains unknown. The time-worn flagstones keep their secrets well; as does the mystery that we call faith.

To say that Sister Bertken’s actions were driven by simple faith is to presume that we know what ‘faith’ actually is. We think that we can discern faith by the outward actions of someone, and we call such a thing an ‘act of faith’. The term is so familiar that we tend to take it for granted that we understand it. But we do not. Not really. When it comes to such an extreme example as Sister Bertken we have arrived at the threshold of the heart’s unknown secrets, and are left to wonder.

Ick voelde in mij een vonkelkijn

Het roert so dic dat herte mijn

Daer wil ick wel op waken

Die min vermach des altemael

Een vuur daeraf te maken.


I felt a tiny spark within

It reached into this heart of mine

And I will guard its light

The spark that love will kindle

To a fire burning bright.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Golden Joins

How often in life are we left feeling that something has broken us? We might feel this way for any number of reasons, perhaps because of the loss of a loved one, leaving us heartbroken. Or because of some failed business venture, when our dreams collapse and we are left to ‘pick up the pieces’. Or perhaps some relationship comes to a sudden and painful end, leaving us feeling wounded, heartbroken and hesitant about risking some new beginning.

All such experiences are common enough, and it is unlikely that we can manage to get through life without encountering one or more of these various trials, perhaps even multiple times. But what seems to make these experiences unique is not so much that they happen, but our different reactions to them and how we personally deal with them. One way of coping with them is to ‘put a brave face on things’ and to act as if everything is alright really, and carry on behaving as if all is normal and that there is nothing really to worry about. In such a situation we have decided ‘not to make a fuss’, even though the reality might be that below the surface we are feeling emotionally devastated.

Methods used in the West by pottery restorers can be very successful at disguising damage caused by breakage. Some beloved or valuable ceramic, having been accidentally smashed into several pieces, is painstakingly restored by a competent professional. The ceramic is carefully glued back together, the pieces are joined once more, and any gaps between the cracks are filled with an appropriate modelling material before being painted over to closely match the original. In the hands of a skilled restorer the damage can be rendered invisible to all but the closest inspection. But there is another way.

The Japanese know it as the art of kintsugi. It is in every way the opposite, both in materials and in philosophy, of the restoration methods described above. Kintsugi means ‘golden joins’, because rather than making any attempt to disguise any cracks, the cracks instead are not only left plainly visible, but transformed into a feature of the ceramic by filling them with gold lacquer paste, transforming every single item repaired in this way into an individual object, even a unique work of art. The history of a piece, including the event of its breakage, is plainly visible, turning a potential disaster instead into a celebration.

Both of these methods ensure that the piece in question is as functional as it was before the breakage and suitable to be passed on to the next generation, but oh, how different they are in their approaches! Perhaps, rather than always ‘putting a brave face on things’, we ourselves might do better to remember the art of kintsugi and choose to bear our emotional and physical scars as worthy signs of our own personal history. A woman who has undergone a mastectomy and chooses to have her scar tattooed might in her own way be said to be practicing the art of kintsugi. Who among us has not been damaged at one time or another? It is up to us either to disguise that damage and pretend that everything is alright really, or to embrace it and create our own art of healing, our own ‘golden joins’.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Saint Michael and the Dragon


When the Saint George of legend valiantly sets out to fight the dragon and rescue the fair maiden, the king’s daughter, he not only accomplishes his mission; he also supplies us with a powerful archetype of the bold knight and the damsel in distress. But: ‘as above, so below’ is the dictum at the cornerstone of Western mysticism, and so we might expect to find Saint George’s bravery mirrored by events in the heavens.

Today, September 29, we celebrate the feast of the archangel Saint Michael, whose name means ‘the one who is like God’. The principal task of Michael is to fight against evil, and evil in Western tradition is personified by the dragon. According to John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation, this battle between these two ultimate adversaries took place in the heavens. John gives us a stirring account of the conflict: Michael and the other angels fight against the dragon and its accompanying demons, “and the great dragon, that old snake… was conquered and thrown out of heavens into the deep.”

When we gaze up into the night sky it might seem a peaceful and orderly place. But appearances can be deceptive, for our telescopes reveal to us stars exploding with such violence that the worlds around them must surely be destroyed. The cosmos is itself a battleground, and reflects the epic struggle of the angels taking place on less visible planes. In John’s narrative Michael emerges as the victor of the battle against the powers of darkness. And so the celebration of Saint Michael on this day is a calling to us to acknowledge and recognize those powers which seek to unbalance the cosmic equilibrium, and each in our own way to strive against them, whether they be destructive forces in the world itself, or demons of a more personal nature with which we must do battle inside ourselves.

And so Saint George rides out to join battle with the terrible monster and rescue the fair maiden. The maiden is essential to the story, for she represents all that is pure and good: those qualities that must be guarded and cherished, especially in the face of evil. Saint George battles the dragon on earth as Saint Michael battles the dragon in the heavens. The one reflects the other, and although the outcome of the battle might at times seem uncertain, to fight and to strive for victory is all and everything.

Painting by James Powell

Friday, September 4, 2020

Have Patience My Heart

Heb geduld mijn hart,

ik zoek een nieuwe weg,

een plaats waarheen

ik vol verlangen

mijn voeten  zetten kan.

Heb geduld mijn ziel,

mijn denken is nog

oud en zwaar.


Have patience my heart,

I'm looking for a new way

a place to where I

full of longing

can put my feet.

Have patience my soul

my thinking is still

old and heavy.


Pencil drawing by Kahlil Gibran

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Virgin of Guadalupe

The Mother I most often carry with me everywhere is the woodswoman La Nuestra Senora, Our Lady Guadalupe, she whose mantle is fashioned of moss from the north side of trees at sunset, she who has star shards caught in her wild silver hair. Her gown is soft, coarse-woven cloth with the thorns and weed seeds and petals of wild roses caught in it.

She has dirty hands from growing things earthy, and from her day and night work alongside her hard-working sons and daughters, their children, their elders, all.

La Guadalupe is no symmetrical thing with palms equally outstretched and frozen in time.
She is ever in motion.
If there is emotion, she is there.
If there is commotion, she is there.
If there is elation, she is there.
Impatience, she is there.
Fatigue, she is there.
Fear, unrest, sorrow,
Beauty, inspiration,
She is there.

And she is demure in a sense, yes, but different from those who would fade her essence into an anemia: Yes, she is demure as in demurring, that is, refusing to be contained and made small.

And she is calm, yes, but not without will to rise again and again. Instead, yes, she is calm as the mighty ocean is calm as it moves in enormous troughs and pinnacles, its huge waves like a heartbeat: easy, intentional, muscular.

And she is pure, yes, but not as in never going dark, never having doubt, never taking a wrong turn for a time, but rather pure, yes, as a gemstone is cut into a hundred sparkling facets - that kind of pure, meaning gem-cut by travail, adventure, and challenge — and yet fully without a streak of dead glass in any facet. ... (pp. 17-18)

The Memorae
Very often I am asked how a soul just coming to truly be with Our Lady might think about Maria, Nuestra Madre Grande. I say:

How to comprehend her, be close to her.

The exotic locale is not necessary to apprehend her. She is found in a shard of glass, in a broken curb, in a hurt heart, and in any soul knowing or unknowing, yet crazy in love with the mysteries, with the divine spark, the creative fire — and not quite so in love with mundane and petty challenges only.

Think of her not in the ways you've been told/sold.
Rather, seek her with your own eyes without blinders
and your own heart without shutters.
Look low instead of high.
Look right under your nose.
She comes in many guises and disguises.
Hidden, right out in the open.
And you will know her immediately by her immaculate
and undivided heart for humanity.

This is the Guadalupe I think you know of, or sense, or want to know, or are very close to for years now. Our Lady is joy-centric and sorrow-mending. She is one who is present in every way. In so understanding one's own pull to the Holy Woman, thus do we untie the Strong Woman.

Here, please allow me to pray strength into your hands and heart — and inspiration and daring — and fire — to lift the Great Woman away from whichever Lilliputians have tied her down into more manageable form.

No matter which dissertation or diminution she has been tied down by, she is greater than any Lilliputian mind by far. (p. 21)


The Virgin of Guadalupe as presented by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Unending Love

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell..
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours..
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

Rabindranath Tagore


Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Grandma, how do you deal with pain?"

"Grandma, how do you deal with pain?"

"With your hands, dear. When you do it with your mind, the pain hardens even more."

"With your hands, Grandma?"

"Yes, yes. Our hands are the antennas of our soul. When you move them by sewing, cooking, painting, touching the earth or sinking them into the earth, they send signals of caring to the deepest part of you and your soul calms down. This way she doesn't have to send pain anymore to show it."

"Are hands really that important?"

"Yes, my girl. Thinking of babies: they get to know the world thanks to their touches. When you look at the hands of older people, they tell more about their lives than any other part of the body. Everything that is made by hand, so is said, is made with the heart because it really is like this: hands and heart are connected. Masseuses know this: when they touch another person's body with their hands, they create a deep connection. Thinking of lovers: when their hands touch, they love each other in the most sublime way."

"My hands, Grandma.. how long haven't I used them like that!"

"Move them my girl, start creating with them and everything in you will move. The pain will not pass away. But it will be the best masterpiece. And it won't hurt anymore. Because you managed to embroider your essence."


Words by Elena Barnabé
Painting: "The Wise Woman" by Sandra Bierman

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Her Name was Lilith

Her name was Lilith, and early Jewish folklore tells us that she was the first wife of Adam. This weaving together of folklore, legend and scripture became a way to explain the curious fact that in just the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis there are two separate versions of the creation of the first man and woman. Chapter Two relates the familiar version of Eve being formed from one of Adam’s ribs, but in Chapter One we are told that the man and the woman were created at the same time, and therefore independently of each other. This first couple remain unnamed, which is where folklore steps in and names the woman as Lilith.

Unlike Eve, who is something of a ‘second-generation’ product, from the very moment of her creation Lilith is an independent being, with equally independent thoughts and aspirations. As such she is clearly Adam’s equal, so it is unsurprising that when Adam expects his new partner to have a subservient role then Lilith is having none of it! She protests mightily both to Adam and to God himself that she is better than that, better than someone who must keep a respectful distance and walk behind her ‘master’, better than a mere servant who apparently is intended to keep Eden nicely cleaned and dusted while Adam lords it over her and busies himself with more important tasks like inventing names for all the animals.

We might imagine that both God and Adam were rather taken aback by this unexpected show of rebellion (as they saw it) on the part of the woman, and two bruised male egos must therefore have watched in dismay as Lilith stormed off into the night to begin her own independent existence. So unlike Eve who would come after her, Lilith was not expelled from Paradise, but kept the power to herself and left of her own accord. And so a new partner for Adam was created, this time out of Adam’s own flesh, and both God and Adam would make very sure that the second time around the woman would indeed be subservient to the man.

This is where the original folklore ends. So what happened to Lilith after she left Eden? What happened is that new folklore emerged, new tales were shaped, and a new Lilith was created out of them. But this was no longer the Lilith who was the strong and resourceful female. Lilith’s terrible (and as it turns out, bitterly unjust) punishment for doing nothing more than assert her equal gender rights was to be transformed by subsequent folklore from a strong, empowered and independent woman into a predatory and dangerous creature of the darkness, and there to be – quite literally –  demonized.

We now picture Lilith as a dangerous and predatory demon of the night, and, quite literally, give her horns and even fangs to the extent that she resembles a sort of female version of Satan. But this Lilith is essentially a male fantasy, an invention which almost seems deliberately calculated to put the upstart Lilith in her place once and for all. Such a pity, because it is clear that the original version of who Lilith actually was and what she really was like is a Lilith who is needed now more than ever. Perhaps this is the task of our own age: to redeem Lilith, to restore her in all her original empowered femininity, so that a measure of balance also might be restored to our own troubled times.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

In the Name of the Mother

“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This invocation to the Holy Trinity is so familiar in Christian prayer that it probably hardly registers that two of these terms are decidedly gender-specific, with the third term implied as being so by the first two. This can be a troubling point to maneuver around for those liberal souls who might insist that ‘God’ is neither male nor female, when the phrase ‘God the father’ has become so entrenched in our consciousness.

To help us to a greater understanding, let me here offer a thought of the Sikh sage and spiritual teacher Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, known as Yogi Bhajan: “Why do we call God the Father? Father does not have a creative nature... father can only seed. We are a soul and part of that whole great soul which is the seed in you. Creativity of sustenance and deliverance is from the mother, and that is why the Earth is called mother.”

Why indeed is God ‘the father’? It perhaps needs a mental effort to realize that things were not always this way, for in the beliefs of Ancient Babylonia the First Cause was female: the primordial Cosmic Ocean from whose waters all arose. It was the mingling of two waters, the salt waters of the seas and the fresh waters of the rivers and lakes of the land, which allowed all creation to begin, and it was the primordial Feminine which provided the impetus to initiate that momentous act. In this creative scheme of things no ‘father’ was necessary.

In nature as well ‘no father is necessary’, for in nature we encounter ‘parthenogenesis’, meaning ‘virgin birth’, and it is by no means uncommon in many species of reptiles, in bees, and in plants. No male is needed for these life forms to procreate: they simply do what they do! Nature might be showing us the way forward by example, although we in our Western mindset might still be a long way from ‘God the mother’.

To go back even further in time from these very first Babylonian beliefs of the primordial Mother Ocean, but staying in the Middle East, we arrive at the ancient civilization of Sumer, and the temple of Sumer’s High Priestess Enheduanna. Who did Enheduanna worship as the Supreme Creative force? The goddess Inanna, to whom the High Priestess composed several heartfelt and moving prayers – now among the oldest surviving writings in existence.

This ancient religious landscape already looks fundamentally different from our Holy Trinity of today, for God is only 'God the Father' in those patriarchal traditions which had - and still have - a vested interest in preserving their own power. But as Yogi Bhajan points out, the Creative Force is both initiating and sustaining: it is the Mother of all, the Divine Ground of all being.

Artwork: The Healing Women by Michael Malm

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Eggs White and Eggs Red and The Philosopher's Stone

Peter has always tended to regard this woman as something of an upstart. That he has done so perhaps might have had to do with a simmering yet unvoiced resentment that she, a mere woman, was clearly so highly regarded by their beloved rabban Yeshua. Poor Peter; impulsive by nature, at times even hot-headed, and driven by a misplaced and oh-so-human jealousy. Eventually, as inevitably they must with him, his emotions rule his actions and he decides to press the issue and challenge Mary of Magdala, Mary the Magdalene.

Seizing the moment, Peter confronts Mary as she happens to be carrying some freshly-collected eggs in a basket. The confronting challenge is as direct as it is simple: to prove her divine worth Mary must change the pure white eggs in her basket in some dramatic and fundamental way. And there before Peter’s astonished gaze all the white eggs instantly turn a deep and vivid ruby red.

There are several variations of this story, which has been used as a charming explanation as to why we have the custom of painting eggs at Easter. We might wonder whether it was Mary’s own spiritual power that caused the miracle, or whether some aspect of the Divine stepped in to cause the change independently of her own will. Perhaps it matters little which of these two alternatives is correct, because the point of the story remains the same: Peter’s doubts about who had a claim to the Divine spirit were dispelled in that moment.

The symbolism in the story is plain enough: white is used to represent the purity of the Lamb, and red is for the Saviour’s blood shed to redeem us all. This is the accepted version – and the accepted familiar symbolism – of Christianity. But is that really all there is to this story? This post might have ended here, but this story, like all stories that have such an apparently simple appeal, contains profound and unexpected depths.

The story, like so many of these stories which embroider upon scriptural settings, appears to be medieval, and it is a medieval alchemist’s study that we need to visit to continue this more mysterious thread of our story further. The creation of that fabled treasure of legend, the Philosophers’ Stone, included three principal stages. The second of these two, known as the whitening or the albedo, was -if the procedure was followed carefully!- succeeded by the triumphant stage known as the reddening or the rubedo, which was the appearance of the blood-red Stone itself. It need come as no surprise to us to learn that this most precious Stone was symbolised by an egg, and the egg itself was said to contain all the elements united.

The white further represented the alchemist’s mystical ‘philosopher's mercury’ -representing the human soul- and the red the ‘philosopher’s sulphur’ -representing the human spirit-, and it is the constant mingling of these two which caused the treasured Stone to emerge. To possess the Stone was no small achievement, as it was said to confer the power of immortality upon its owner. And in the end, is this not the true message of Easter? Redemption offers eternal life, and Easter is nothing if not a story of redemption.

So perhaps this coming Easter if you happen to be at home or elsewhere painting eggs, you might remember that you are not merely remembering Mary’s miracle, but are also creating a replica of the fabled Philosophers’ Stone!