Friday, May 4, 2018

An Angel's Sigh


When you sleep I watch you.
The gentle rise and fall, 
and rise and falling of your breath.
And I wish 
I could kiss the softness that lives inside you.
That hope which has feathers and wings, 
that flies into things I cannot. 
Like dreams and young countries. 
All that lives beyond the borders of my being. 
A place to which I have no passport 
but your breath.. 
your gentle breath..
it breaks here on my arm
like a fog it flows around my form 
and I will kiss that while I can.
Because tomorrow, 
who knows what breathes in 
tomorrow?




Painting "Finding Psyche" by Edward Burne-Jones


Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Two Gardens


In chapter twenty of John’s gospel we learn that Mary Magdalene, having encountered two angels in the empty sepulchre where Jesus had lain, turns around and sees a figure whom she presumes to be the gardener. From these brief details of scripture we can picture the entire setting: We are told that Mary does not actually enter the sepulchre but merely looks through the entranceway from which the great stone has now been rolled aside. And we also are told that the figure is a gardener: the sepulchre must be set in its own garden, which is what we would expect of a tomb owned by someone as wealthy as Joseph of Arimathea.

The ‘gardener’, as Mary realizes, is the risen Jesus. “Touch me not” Jesus cautions her, for he is in a state between realms, halfway between the physical world and the realm of the spirit. These few brief verses give us no indication as to Mary’s emotions. We are merely told in that moment of recognition that she addresses Jesus as ‘Rabboni’ or Master. But we readily can imagine how Mary must have been overwhelmed with astonished joy!

So here is Mary, poised at the entrance of the tomb, poised between the world of material life and the world of the spirit, and here is Jesus, also poised between those two same realms. They are both in a state of awakening. Through her life’s contact with her spiritual master, this is Mary’s moment: the essential transition between the teachings of the way of the spirit and the actuality of the spirit’s presence and the conquest of death itself. And this also is Jesus’ moment: his farewell appearance both to Mary and a little later to his disciples in his material form before he becomes Spirit forever.

But why would Jesus choose the form of a gardener? Great happenings tend to move in great cycles, and this is visualised by the image of the Ouroboros – the serpent holding its own tail in its mouth. So let us follow that image back to another serpent – or perhaps it is merely the same serpent in another guise.

We are in Eden. Adam the gardener tends his garden: we even refer to this place as the Garden of Eden. And at the centre of this garden is the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which we know is really the tree of mortality, of the death of the physical body, should its fruit be eaten. Adam and Eve inevitably eat of the fruit and so lose their immortality, and must incarnate into the material world, with death waiting at the end in the hard world beyond the garden’s walls. But the second gardener in the book of John is the mirror of these events in the book of Genesis. Adam the gardener of Eden was in transition from the spiritual to the physical. Jesus the ‘Gardener’ is in transition from the physical to the spiritual.

What now lies before Mary is a task in the world, of living out the ultimate lesson of the spirit which she now has witnessed and learned in that far-off garden by the sepulchre. Her master awaits an even more profound awakening in the realm of the spirit, but for Mary it is the message of the joy of life that conquers death which lies on her lips now.






Stained Glass of Jesus and the Magdalene designed by Edward Burne-Jones

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Letting Go - An Act of Love

The phrase ‘letting go’ perhaps tends to be used rather casually. But there surely is a difference between letting go an unkind remark someone might have said to us, between urging ourselves to ‘let it go’, and the letting go of something so deep that it feels like death. This type of letting go is never easy and requires enormous courage. This type of letting go takes us on a journey that is highly personal, and only the person involved can do this in her or his own time. It is a lone process: no one can do it for us.
It is the act of letting go of a loved one. 
As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in one of his poems: "We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go." Letting go of a loved one is a recognition that we never really owned anyone or anything. It is a conscious act of great love and faith. For no one wants to part from a beloved one. 

The act of letting go itself seems to be an ongoing state of being; like the tides, one's emotions tend to ebb and flow, and these processes never seem to go quite in a straight line. But slowly, slowly, a little drop becomes the ocean and things find the level which is intended for them.

Often we have dreams of what we want in life, including who we want to be with, and how we want things to be. But sometimes life itself says 'no': we realize with terrible finality that our dreams are not to be, and our most sought-after aspirations are doomed to remain unrealized. Then what?
The author Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes such a situation as: "leaving what cannot be." But what is this "leaving?" How do we stop reading the same chapter again and again? How do we stop the same looped recording playing over and over in our thoughts?

This more profound act of letting go is a deep acceptance, a surrender to what is, a realization of how things truly are, and a leaving behind of any desire for how we would like or prefer things to be. Saying ‘yes’ to this type of letting go irrevocably changes and transforms us. It is not a matter of hardening our hearts, of closing them so that no pain can enter. For if we close our hearts in this way, and with this intent, then not only do we not let pain in: we allow pain that is there to become trapped and to find no escape. The pain stays within us.
Instead, if only we open our hearts completely, if we open our hearts as wide as the summer skies, then not only all our joys and loves are embraced, but also all our pain and suffering and emotional turmoil. This is the marvelous paradox: in embracing our pain we also truly ‘let it go’. Inner freedom comes from this.

And so letting go is a deep acceptance, a surrender to what is. Every living soul on this earth, whether in physical or in spiritual despair or distress, is walking this road at some stage in her or his life. And it is up to each and every one of us to break through that hidden isolation and take that one step nearer to the real freedom which comes with truly ‘letting go’







Painting by Isil Gönen

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve, 1513

I salute you. I am your friend and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not got, but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven!

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see - and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by the covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it, touch the angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me, that angel's hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty - beneath its covering - that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it, that is all. But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are all pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.

And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.


"Letter to a Friend" by Fra Giovanni Giocondo, 1513

*

Wishing my readers 
the deep magic of the season
peace and love 
and many blessings 
in 2018


*




Sunday, December 17, 2017

Yuletide Greetings


‘’Yuletide Greetings!” is the cheery message on one of my Christmas cards this year. Yuletide is a familiar term for this season, but where does the word actually come from? It seems that in Scandinavian lands ‘Jul’ or ‘Jule’ was, and still is, the term for the midwinter month, and there still exists the tradition of burning the Yule log on the hearth fire. 

But like the Christmas tree itself, many of these customs have been carried over from old pagan traditions. Even the very date of Christmas has nothing to do with the actual day of the birth of Jesus, but is believed to originally have been a celebration for the Sun God, perhaps to persuade that god to return to strength and brightness following the shortest and darkest days of the year.

It is a sad fact that when early Christianity was making inroads into Europe many pagan temples and sacred sites were destroyed by those zealously spreading the word of the new faith, and churches of the new religion were built upon the remaining foundations. So we have the buildings of one faith built upon the remains of the faiths which came before it, and new traditions and celebratory dates also were ‘built upon’ those of the previous faiths.

These layerings of traditions, dates and buildings tell us, not just what is, but what has been in our past. The ruins of the past are always to be glimpsed in the present. But what of the future? We cannot know what faiths and beliefs the future may hold, in a hundred, or even in a thousand years. Perhaps, like our own present, the distant future will contain the fragmented pieces of the beliefs which now dominate our world, which themselves have been replaced by other faiths which the unknown future holds. But what if we tread still further into the unknown? What if we reach out, not a mere millennium, but some five thousand years into our future?

Five thousand years ago the civilization of Sumer existed: a time as far into our past as we are imagining our hypothetical future. In that time there was no dominant male god. In that time there was a great goddess: Inanna. In that time the Supreme Deity was a ‘she’. Who would dare predict that in another five thousand years this will not happen again, and that ‘God the Father’ will belong among the ruins of a dim and distant past, which is our own time. Perhaps it will take far less time than another five millennia for this to happen, for these things do seem to happen in unpredictable cycles.

A tipping point is reached, and suddenly the landscape around us changes, and nothing is quite as we had known it. It is the landscape of faiths, of traditions, and we need to dig just a little way down to discover that our foundations are those of another faith entirely. Perhaps this is the time of the year to celebrate, not one faith in particular, but faith itself: a faith which renews itself through all the ages, finding new forms in its striving to bring a measure of trust and peace of heart. 



Painting Druids bringing the Mistletoe by Edward Atkinson Hornel

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Magnificat



MAGNIFICAT 

What shall I do
with this quiet joy?
It calls forth the expanse
of my soul, calls
it forth to go singing
through the world...
to rock the cradles of death
gently and without fear.. 
to collect the rain
in my spread hands
 and spill it
like laughter...

Calls it forth
to bear into this world
a place
where light will glisten the edge
 of every wing
and blade of grass and
Shine 
along every hair on every head..
Gleam 
among the turnings of every wave.
Glorify
the turning open of each life,
each human hand.



from "Magnificat" by Christina Hutchin
My soul magnifies God.
Luke 1:46

*

The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth is closely connected to the canticle 
of the Magnificat that she sang on that occasion.

*
Painting "The Visit" by Dorothy Webster Hawksley, (1884-1970)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Beyond the Blue Seas


“Beyond the blue seas, and beyond the high mountains” is the stirring description which carries us to the world of Vasilissa the Beautiful and the witch Baba Yaga: perhaps the Russian equivalent of our “once upon a time” phrase. Vasilissa the Beautiful follows much the same themes as our own Cinderella: a story involving a cruel stepmother and stepsisters whose exploitive coldness must be contended with, a pure and beautiful young woman who arouses the stepmother’s jealousy, and the hag Baba Yaga.

As with so many of these stories, Vasilissa’s tale endures because when we read it we sense deeper stirrings of themes to which we feel powerfully drawn. Is Baba Yaga merely a one-dimensional forest witch… or does she perhaps offer us lessons for our own lives? True to tradition, Baba Yaga is grotesquely ugly, with straggling hair as white as death and whose face seems more to be a leathery mask of wrinkles. She has at her command the powers of magical flight. The fence which borders her house is made from human bones, and upon each fence post rests a human skull with brightly-glowing eyes.

The setting has all the spine-chilling attributes of a storybook evil witch, but can we really consider Baba Yaga herself to be ‘evil’? In the story she actually provides Vasilissa with the means to overcome the wicked stepmother and stepdaughters by giving her one of those fiery-eyed skulls. When Vasilissa carries the skull back to her own home, the glowing eyes burn up the tyrannical stepmother together with her daughters, and she is freed to claim back her own life.

So Baba Yaga is perhaps neither strictly ‘good’ nor ‘evil’ in any clear-cut sense, any more than a tornado which destroys a community with its ferocious power can be considered as having done ‘evil’. A torrential downpour of rain might relieve a long period of drought, but the rain is not ‘good’ in any moral sense. The forces of nature simply are. 

Unlike the stepmother, Baba Yaga feels no jealousy towards Vasilissa’s great beauty. She cannot. To Baba Yaga, her own hideous appearance is simply a part of who she is, just as Vasilissa’s beauty reflects her pure soul. We would say that Baba Yaga owns her own ugliness. But what of Vasilissa? Her encounter with Baba Yaga has worked its own changes upon her as well. Baba Yaga has long left behind any need to feel ‘beautiful’. She is who she is. Baba Yaga’s true power has been to liberate herself from herself.

In her turn, in putting up with such cruel treatment in her own home for so long, Vasilissa, by being too submissive and servile, has in a sense kept herself captive. Baba Yaga’s gift to Vasilissa has been to awaken her to her own strength. Vasilissa returns empowered. In a sense the fiery-eyed skull is a mere prop, a showy trick which distracts from what has really taken place. It is the transformed Vasilissa who does the real vanquishing, and it is the transformed Vasilissa who now is free to claim her own life back.





Illustration by Forest Rogers


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

When I was the Forest


When I was the stream, when I was the
forest, when I was still the field,
when I was every hoof, foot,
fin and wing, when I
was the sky
itself,

no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, no one ever
wondered was there anything I might need,
for there was nothing
I could not
love.

It was when I left all we once were that
the agony began, the fear and questions came,
and I wept, I wept. And tears
I had never known
before.

So I returned to the river, I returned to
the mountains. I asked for their hand in marriage again,
I begged -I begged to wed every object
and creature,

and when they accepted,
God was ever present in my arms.
                                             And He did not say,
“Where have you
been?”

For then I knew my soul - every soul - has always held
Him.

*

Meister Eckhart 
(1260 – 1328)


Monday, October 30, 2017

Autumn Alchemy


The air is very still. Around them the trees perform their autumn alchemy, transmuting their leaves into gold against the gold of the late October sun: gold against gold. Together they walk between the trees. Hand in hand, as always. They do not speak. Words would add nothing to their togetherness.

Every now and then one of them stops to read a text on a stone, out loud, but softly, while the other waits quietly. And then they walk on. Sometimes the woman bends over as if to brush away some leaves from the stones, and only then they let go of each other. Many of the texts they know by heart, but every now and then they discover a new one, and pause to read it with great concentration. Their bodies stretch forward, and quietly they read names, dates, wishes for peace: gestures of a love which endures long beyond the dates on which they were inscribed.

Sometimes the effort needed is too much for them. Then they speak in turn, each one carrying the words forward to the end of the inscription. The rhythm of the one glides effortlessly into that of the other, as if one voice only is speaking. But a beautiful text they read together, simultaneously. The woman now and then shakes her head compassionately: "So young still, so very young." "Come", says the man then. And at another place they might just nod, or agree together: "Yes, yes, that is a wonderful age!"

Their bench is occupied. A woman, middle-aged, alone. They greet her. "Good afternoon madam." But the woman does not respond. Her head is lowered, sunk deep in her own thoughts with a resigned finality. She hardly seems to notice them as they walk past her. They walk on, a little taken aback, to the next bench. There they rest.

A bird starts singing its evening song, sitting in a tall tree which bends over a new grave. The song sounds so full of life. In the distance a church bell starts ringing, almost as if in response to the bird’s own cadences.

"That late already? Come, we’d better go now." Hand in hand they walk back between the trees, past the woman on the bench. She looks up at last as they approach her, grateful to have the cemetery to herself. Grief is, after all, a private thing. High overhead a formation of geese is flying. Winter is nigh.




Thursday, October 19, 2017

Are We Still or are We Moving?



Are we still or are we moving? Even when our senses tell us that we might be keeping perfectly still, we know that we are moving, both with the Earth’s rotation through its cycles of day and night and with the movement of the Earth itself as it swims through the dark ocean of space. But to our ancestors these movements were unknown, unrecognised – and unthought-of. In those distant days, before science started to tell us otherwise, stillness was simply stillness.

But let us put science aside. If we are still, are we still moving? Supposing that we are lying ill in bed with a fever? Just as a burning fever is necessary before the healing can occur, we sometimes must undergo a critical turning point where we are turned around, inside out, undergoing a radical shift, to face a truth within. In life it is often suffering that leads us to open doors within ourselves that we probably would not have opened had we not first experienced this suffering. The suffering creates movement: a movement towards a process in which true healing can begin.

Our ancestors might not have been aware of the Earth’s movement through space, but movement for them came in other, perhaps more richer forms. For them, movement was a process: that sense of a journey which moves ever inwards and outwards once more. In mystic - and mythic - terms, a journey towards a centre is also a journey towards an edge, and it is this paradox which finds its most powerful expression in the form of the labyrinth.

And yet, such a paradox exists only in our everyday material reality, and is seen as being paradoxical only by our everyday senses. Once we are in the labyrinth and we walk the winding path which leads us inexorably towards the centre, we enter a timeless mythic landscape. Such paradoxes will then become meaningless, and the centre which is also an edge becomes a reality: a revealed truth. The labyrinth is a three-dimensional lesson offering a great and simple truth: that a movement – any movement – is a movement towards stillness, and that movement and stillness are themselves an eternal dynamic between action and rest.

Are we still or are we moving? We follow the winding path within ourselves and discover at our innermost centre, at the very core of our being, not the confines which we had imagined, but new infinities offering a true healing of the self.








Friday, September 29, 2017

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