Sisterhood, Service, Sovereignty: The Living Spirit of Avalon by Elizabeth Cunningham


Like so many women, I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and got caught up in her vision of the Holy Isle and the priestesses who knew how to navigate those mists and travel between the worlds. Like so many women, I wished Avalon existed still.

In fact, Avalon does exist, because Jhenah Telyndru did more than wish. In 1995 she founded The Sisterhood of Avalon. Twenty-two years later, the Sisterhood is going strong and growing, attracting members from all over the world. I urge you to explore their website where the Sisters speak eloquently about their vision, structure, and purpose.

I spent a weekend at their Ninefold Festival, an event open to all women, where I’d been invited to be a guest speaker. Though the sisterhood leads pilgrimages to Glastonbury, the probable site of ancient Avalon, the Holy Isle springs to life wherever the Sisterhood gathers, in this case a university field campus where half the cabins turned out to lack heat, and plumbing was somewhat…delicate. A cold snap (on the heels of a heat wave) presented additional challenges, but everyone was cheerful and game and pitched in to help. Everywhere I went I heard laughter, deep conversation, snatches of song. A number of the Sisters are gifted singers and songwriters. Their ritual chants are transporting. I look forward to their forthcoming recording of original music.

Among the participants were women who had known each other for years as well as newcomers, arriving singly or with friends. I was impressed with how warmly everyone was welcomed and included. In her keynote address Jhenah Telyndru spoke passionately of sisterhood, challenging the stereotype of women as untrustworthy rivals, enjoining us to lift each other up, to find collective strength in each sister’s gifts. The Sisterhood is filled with women who have learned to be collaborative leaders and are dedicated to teaching those skills to others. In short, they are building a strong, flexible, evolving structure intended to outlast any individual or personality. The present Sisterhood of Avalon, reclaimed from the past, is creating a dynamic future—which is an act of collective service not just to the Sisterhood. We all need encouragement to imagine new ways to live and connect.

“You are what you do,” Jhenah stressed, a bracing corrective to New Age solipsism.  “You take care of those in your square mile.” Surprisingly my age-old sense of inadequacy (I-can-never-do-enough-and-what-I-do-is-not-good enough) was not triggered perhaps because of Jhenah’s emphasis on discernment of our own particular vocation. The daughter of a fiery preacher of the Christian Social Gospel, I was brought up to believe that writing novels was not service but self-indulgence. Though I have questioned that belief intellectually, that weekend I took to heart that storytelling can also be service.

For the Sisterhood of Avalon, sovereignty is core and quest.  Sovereignty as the conscious and conscientious rule of an integrated self. Avalonian Sister FAR’s own Kate Brunner wrote in these pages, quoting the Sisterhood of Avalon’s Core Beliefs “Our community operates with the foundational principle that we are each working to obtain our personal sovereignty, while we seek to honor the personal sovereignty of others.” And, I would add, the sovereignty of the earth herself.

By the end of the weekend, several newcomers declared their intention to join the Sisterhood. In contrast, a women’s circle, who came to the festival together, told me they were content with their own community and added “It is an honor to be able to visit other women’s circles.” The Council of Nine, part of the leadership structure, gave information on how to become a member, but there was no pressure and nothing but respect for women on other paths. I would like to add that though the Sisterhood of Avalon works with Celtic mythology, Welsh in particular, there is no emphasis on ancestry. All women drawn to the path are welcome, and the membership reflects and encourages a growing diversity. (photography by Canita Lee)

Though I am a fan of the Sisterhood, I will not be joining. For eighteen years I led an earth-centered ritual community open to all. Many of us share memories of camaraderie and joy, but none us ever felt called to organize our community. It had a natural lifespan, and now it is gone, though the friendships endure, and seeds may fly and take root in unforeseen ways. That transitory community had one kind of beauty; the Sisterhood of Avalon has another. Instead of reproaching myself for what I had not done, I felt a deepened sense of peace about my choices, one of the gifts of my time in Avalon.

The title of my talk was “Motherwit: for when your/the world feels like it’s coming to an end.” I’d come up with it a year ago and the topic seemed even more relevant that weekend with several of the Sisters coming from Houston. We all returned home to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas. The questions of how to cope, how to survive and rise from personal and global disaster are ongoing. One thing I know: sisterhood is powerful, comforting, and alive. I will close with the poem I wrote for the Sisterhood and for all sisters everywhere.

for the sisters

sisters, we are not alone
although it often feels that way
we are circles
around the sun and moon
ripples widening out and out
expanding rings
of young and ancient trees
stones circles that still stand
sisters, let’s always remember
we can hold each other’s hand

 

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She has recently released the 25th anniversary edition of The Return of the Goddess, A Divine Comedy. Later this year she will publish The Book of Madge, a graphic novel that opened the way for The Maeve Chronicles. She is the author of three collections of poems as well as the classic cozy mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale. She is at work on a sequel. A fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.

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Categories: Community, female friendship, Feminism and Religion, Friendship, Interdependence of Life, Relationality, Relationships, Ritual, Sacred Space, Sisterhood, Sovereignty, Women and Community, Women's Spirituality

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21 replies

  1. “You are what you do,” I love this quote. It’s true. We become what we do. I am a writer, poet, storyteller and I never forget that words have power to shift awareness. I am also content to be giving back through what I do best – writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful, Elizabeth. I think so many women struggle to accept themselves–just how they are–breathing, living, doing–in their own skin. You write, “…I was brought up to believe that writing novels was not service but self-indulgence. Though I have questioned that belief intellectually, that weekend I took to heart that storytelling can also be service.” That gulf–understanding intellectually and taking something to heart–is wide for many of us. Thank you for this important piece.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I can relate to your experience growing up in a tradition that focused on inadequacy instead of internal strength and skill. I read more about the Sisterhood and appreciate their emphasis on inner work. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love it! I was in Glastonbury ten years ago and led a meditation in their summer solstice ritual. It was a water ritual, and I was envisioning the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach; several of the women there told me they’d been envisioning the English Channel. (I guess it depends on the water you’re familiar with, eh?) But many people told me they’d enjoyed the meditation. I was enchanted the whole time I was in Glastonbury.

    A few years before that, a group of SoCal witches gathered in one woman’s home to watch the movie based on Bradley’s book on TV. https://www.amazon.com/Mists-Avalon-Anjelica-Huston/dp/B007TBJUW2/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1508077139&sr=1-1&keywords=mists+of+avalon We all wanted to get tiny crescent-moon tattoos on our foreheads so we’d become like the women in the movie. None of us ever got around to it, which makes us laugh today.

    Yes, indeed, Avalon has touched our lives. Thanks for writing about the Sisterhood and your lovely weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always delighted to see your name in the headline, Elizabeth. And your photo which leads me to think you are up to something, and makes me smile.
    There is something very special about women’s groups. I have always found them to be “growth producing”, like gardens in a wilderness. Thank you for this post about the Sisters of Avalon, and the image of: “expanding rings
    of young and ancient trees”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am humbled and deeply by the beauty of this post and the sharing of your experience at Ninefold, Elizabeth. You truly blessed us with your presence and with the wisdoms (and wit!) that you shared!

    I wanted to take a moment to expand upon something you wrote about here which really is a cornerstone of the work of the Sisterhood: it is not so much that we are what we do, but that we are called to do what we *are*… a subtle difference in wording, but a world of difference in practice.

    When we discover who we are and what we are meant to do in the world — having worked to strip away the illusions we have come to accept about our perceived limitations, or the reinforced impulse to conform to the expectations of our families or society, or the ways in which we have learned that we are unworthy or not good enough to dare to blow the spark of our inner Awen into a fire driven by our soul’s passion — then we can be truly Sovereign women.

    When we live from a place of Service, getting out of our own way in order to embrace the idea that ours are the hands of the Divine at work in the word, we can resanctify all that we do in a way that can lift ourselves up while also lifting up the lives and work of everyone around us. All of women’s work is sacred work. There are many ways to be in service to the Divine, and this is a core teaching of the Ninefold… and it is through the revelation of the Sovereign Self that is this sacred service is revealed.

    Many thanks and continued blessings!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jhenah, for that beautiful clarification. I think that is what I took in and why your talk nourished my soul so much–and everyone else’s. Do what you are yes! Many thanks again to the Sisterhood for welcoming me into your midst!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth. The festival sounds magical. Hooray for women’s circles! I belong to a women’s singing circle and I love it! There is also a group in my area that worships the Feminine Divine and I’ve gone to some of their ceremonies, but it is open to everyone and although I think it is great that men also worship the Feminine Divine, I find I don’t get as much from that group, partly because the men are present.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The wonderfully evocative photo is by Canita Lee!

    Like

  9. Elizabeth,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with the Sisterhood of Avalon. It’s sounds wonderful and so life affirming. I have felt just like you – that painting was just self-indulgence and not really doing important work in the world; that I should have been a healer or an activist or a teacher or ….

    With time I came to understand that being an artist is simply who I am. I loved reading Jhenah’s clarification of your words “it is not so much that we are what we do, but that we are called to do what we *are*… a subtle difference in wording, but a world of difference in practice.” This recognition of our own internal truth is most certainly the path out of the mess we are in now. Women are leading the way!

    So wonderful to see your word on FAR again – it’s been too long.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth, which has really struck a chord with me. The world NEEDS storytellers and painters and has done since the Aurignacians painted the walls of their caves 35,000 years ago. And campfires are for story telling as well as cooking.

    There is now a theory that the cave painters were women. Little handprints, like those made by a five-year-old child whose hand has been dipped in paint, grace some of the paintings like signatures.

    As for women’s feelings of inadequacy, there is an entire industry (advertising) devoted to instilling and reinforcing those feelings. No matter how satisfied a woman may be with her life, appearance, and talents, there is a magazine to tell her she’s not pretty enough, thin enough, talented enough, popular enough, and bla bla bla. Compare that to men’s magazines, the basic message of which is, “Hey, you big handsome hunk of burning love, you’re damn near perfect, but you could maybe use a (car, gun, $1,000 suit, or whatever).”

    Sisterhood encourages us to affirm each other’s worth and purpose. Long may it flourish!

    Liked by 1 person

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