Visions of the Great Mother by Mary Gelfand

During late summer a few years ago I had a vision.  I know it was summer because it was hurricane season and there were several active storms in the Atlantic & Caribbean.  Since I grew up in Florida and lived in New Orleans for many years, I have a lot of experience with hurricanes.

In this vision, I found myself seated at the side of the Great Mother Goddess looking down thru a portal at planet Earth.  The Goddess looked at me and then turned back to the portal.  She put a finger out and touched a place on the planet with a spark of light.  Then She turned to me and said, “The energy must be discharged!”  She repeated this multiple times and ultimately put her finger on planet Earth five times, each time touching a spot where a hurricane was active. 

The energy must be discharged! 

Continue reading “Visions of the Great Mother by Mary Gelfand”

The Magic of the Ordinary, by Molly Remer

“Nothing is so simple, or so out of the ordinary for most of us, then attending to the present.”

— Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection

I often speak of being in the temple of the ordinary, of seeing the enchantment in the ordinary. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors write that “beyond the ordinary, beyond material beyond possession, beyond the confines of the self, spirituality transcends the ordinary, and yet, paradoxically, it can be found only in the ordinary. Spirituality is beyond us, and yet it is in everything we do. It is extraordinary. And yet, it is extraordinarily simple.”

This spring, I presented at an event and the concept of “being versus doing” arose. I reminded participants that “being” is not a competitive sport. We cannot not be, we are being all the time. I think sometimes the pressure we put on ourselves to be better, to “do” being better, can be really hobbling. Likewise, the sensation that spirituality is somewhere “out there” or that it has to be bigger than or better than or transcendent instead of present in the ordinary. On a goddess based path, with a feminist orientation, I find that the Goddess herself pervades all of existence, pervades your whole entire life, even the rough and weary places, even the ragged and strange places. Returning to Kurtz and Ketcham, they write: “Now…beyond the ordinary is not meant to suggest something complicated, different, different or self-consciously special. Nothing is so simple, or so out of the ordinary for most of us, then attending to the present. The focus on this day, suggested by all spiritual approaches, attending to the present, to the sacredness present in the ordinary, if we can get beyond the ordinary is, of course, a theme that pervades Eastern expressions of spirituality and other expressions too.”

I know that I often find myself seeking or longing for the special moments, the magic, the flashes of transcendence, and sometimes this can cause me to miss the ordinary, to miss the present, to miss where I am because I’m longing for something else. Adages to the effect of “do what you are doing” and “be where you are” may begin to sound cliché almost and the reason they do is because it’s so simple and so out of the ordinary to simply come back to attending to the present. The present moment is, in my eyes, truly where we find the goddess, in the pulse of presence in the every day. In the book She of the Sea, author Lucy Pearce addresses the question of the transcendent ordinary as well: “I want to write of the oceanic mystery, the soul of goddess magic, the sacred that which lies beyond words, because the repeated deliberate seeking of connection to this is at the heart of what I do and who I am. It is my creative and spiritual practice. I want to speak of this so that you can close your eyes turn inwards and smile knowing, just knowing until our conversation can continue without words…I want to share what I have known and for not to sound strange, yet strangeness is its nature. The soul is not of this world. It’s not rational, the sacred is not logical, but nor is this chaotic, magnificent, contradictory, and complex world of ours. And yet, we insist on pretending that it is and being disappointed, afraid, or bemused when it shows us its reality, again and again.”

The sacred is not logical, and neither is the world itself, but we pretend that it is, and then we get disappointed when we see reality. I originally learned the phrase “don’t argue with reality” from self-help author Wayne Dyer. There can be a whole range of potential experiences that are beyond objective reality or the reality that people sometimes insist is all there is. Jeanette Winterson, in her book Lighthousekeeping writes: “I do not accept that life has an ordinary shape, or that there is anything ordinary about life at all. We make it ordinary, but it is not.”

Maybe we are trying to make things ordinary that are not. My kids are growing up and getting ready to graduate from high school. One of my sons is very into science and loves biology and genetics and he is fond of boiling things down to an “everybody’s just a mass of cells having a collective hallucination” type of rhetoric that leaves little room for the esoteric and little room for inherent meaning. However, for me, I come back to the reality of being human as its own kind of miracle, its own profound magic. The reality of having this body with all these cells, which are doing all these things day in and day out that I don’t consciously know how to do, and yet my body does them every single day. That’s magic, even if we can explain the objective “why” of it. I don’t consciously know how to beat my own heart, but wait a second, yes, I do, because here it is beating every day from birth till death. Some people may be quite attached to maintaining the assertion that life is random and pointless, but this is not the story I see. I see wonder. I see magic. I see a miracle in motion. I am awestruck at the impossible reality of being a bundle of cells typing this essay right now. Yes, I am “only” a bundle of cells and that is absolutely pure magic to me. In fact, your very presence right here, right now is proof of the sacred on this earth in my eyes. May we all love the ordinary and let it whisper of the magic right beneath the skin.

Breathe deep
and allow your gaze
to settle on something you love.
Draw up strength from the earth.
Draw down light from the sky.
Allow yourself to be refilled and restored.
There is good to be done on this day.
Let your own two hands
against your heart be the reminder
you need
that the pulse of the sacred
still beats
and the chord of the holy yet chimes.

Molly Remer, MSW, D.Min, is a priestess facilitating women’s circles, seasonal rituals, and family ceremonies in central Missouri. Molly and her husband Mark co-create Story Goddesses at Brigid’s Grove. Molly is the author of nine books, including Walking with Persephone, Whole and HolyWomanrunes, and the Goddess Devotional. She is the creator of the devotional experience #30DaysofGoddess and she loves savoring small magic and everyday enchantment.

All Shall Be Well: Hope in Hopeless Times

My novel Revelations, based on the intertwined lives of female mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, will be released in paperback on April 19. You can order HERE.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

These words of Julian of Norwich, taken from her masterpiece of visionary theology, Revelations of Divine Love, seem almost tone deaf against our current backdrop of war and the ongoing pandemic. In a world like ours, with war criminals like Putin calling the shots, it’s so tempting to fall into either hardened cynicism or hopeless despair.

But Julian of Norwich was no naïve simpleton. Although an anchoress who had taken vows as a fully cognizant adult to wall herself into a cell built on to the back of Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, she wasn’t living in some airy-fairy cloistered bubble. Her own age was riven by plague, war, and religious intolerance, which saw the burning of many perceived witches and heretics. Saint Julian’s Church (she took the name of the church, not the other way around) was located in a rough part of town near the river and the stinking tannery district where prostituted women and girls plied their trade.

Far from walling herself off from the world’s woes, Dame Julian had a window in her anchorage wall facing out into the street. Anyone might seek her counsel. She was famous throughout Britain for her sage advice. One of the many who poured her soul out to Julian was a desperate housewife and mother of fourteen children, who had finally plucked up the courage to walk away from an abusive marriage. This woman was none other than Margery Kempe, the heroine of my novel.

Margery had been experiencing sensual, visceral images of the divine for over twenty years. Now she had reached a crossroads in her life. She wanted to walk the mystic’s path and travel as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and Rome. But her choice to leave her family and travel the world as a solo woman was even more controversial and downright dangerous in her age than in ours.

It would have been so easy for a spiritual counselor to parrot the voice of conventional wisdom and tell Margery that her dream of pilgrimage was a self-indulgent folly and that her true calling was to serve her children as a conventional wife and mother.

Instead, Julian did something unheard of. She empowered Margery to trust herself, to trust the voice of spiritual wisdom within her own heart. She told Margery to set all her trust in the divine and not to worry too much what the world thought of her choice–if some people disliked Margery, perhaps that meant Margery was doing something right.

Julian didn’t promise Margery–or us, the readers of Revelations of Divine Love–an easy ride. In one of her searing visions, Julian received the message, “You shall not be overcome.” She wrote in her book, “Our Lord did not say, ‘You shall not be tormented, or troubled, or grieved’ but ‘You shall not be overcome.'”

Julian received her divine revelations around the age of thirty when she was deathly ill and thought she was going to die. Instead, she survived and dedicated the rest of her life to being a living witness to the exquisite divine love she had experienced.

We don’t have to be anchoresses or travel to Jerusalem to experience this deep love and wisdom. The deepest pilgrimage of all is the journey into the depths of our own hearts where divine love dwells eternally, in each one of us, regardless of our faith or spirituality. The sacred inside us can never taken from us.

The heart will always be there for us and it is only from the heart that we can bring peace and justice to our fractured world. By bringing our information-overloaded brains inline with the deep wisdom of the heart. By bringing our speech inline with the heart. By bringing all our deeds inline with the heart.

May we all be witnesses to the Divine Love within us.

“All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich (left in her Benedictine habit) counsels Margery Kempe, who dressed all in white to mark her vocation as a mystic and pilgrim.

Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. Please check out her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, and her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich. Visit her website.

Beyond Act One: Why We Need More Stories about Older Women

We are hard-wired to frame our experience in stories. Almost anything we endure, no matter how painful, can take on a deeper meaning if we see it as one chapter in an overarching narrative. Stories give coherence and meaning to our often fragmented and chaotic lives.

Georgia O’Keeffe lived way beyond Act One!

We live in a youth-obsessed culture. The cosmetic industry pushes wrinkle creams and hair dye on us while celebrities resort to fillers and surgery to preserve an illusion of eternal girlhood. Advancing age, once a mark of honour, has become a source of shame. Popular fiction, literary classics, television, and movies celebrate young heroines, from Elizabeth Bennett to Katniss Everdeen. But where are the stories about older women and why do we all need to hear them?

We live longer than ever before. Women’s lives don’t play out in one act, even though our culture programs us to think that way.  It almost seems a travesty to imagine an older Elizabeth Bennett grown bored of Darcy and yearning to reinvent herself and embrace some new adventure.

Old-school male authors were really big on killing off their young heroines so they couldn’t even dream about maturing into women with agency. Shakespeare merrily committed femicide on Juliet, Ophelia, and Desdemona, to name just a few of his hapless heroines. 

Ophelia drowning. Don’t try this at home.

Why have so many authors, past and present, refused to let their heroines age? Why this reluctance to write about seasoned female protagonists who have been around the block more than once? Perhaps because too many people, even today, consider experienced women threatening. Since the time of witch burnings and scold’s bridles, male-dominated culture has been petrified of older woman who seize their power. That’s why stories about young women with a certain cut-off date are much cosier and less threatening.

But coming-of-age stories can only take us so far. We need to imagine lives beyond Act One, beyond a vague glimmering on the horizon. We need signposts to help us navigate our long and unavoidably complicated modern lives. We live in an age of divorce, blended families, and many of us pursue several careers and many paths of discovery over the course of a single lifetime. Contrary to cultural expectations, women do have exciting, juicy lives after forty and beyond. Contemporary fiction should explore and celebrate this.

Yes, there have been break-out books about older women—Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and even literary classics, such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the publishing marketplace, stories about older women remain a hard sell. Which is bitterly ironic, considering that most fiction is purchased by women over the age of forty.

Yet it’s not just an older audience that needs to read about older heroines. I would argue that girls and young women are in even greater need of literary role models to guide them way beyond a self-limiting Act One.

As a teenager, I was hungry for such stories. Some proof that I had something to look forward to beyond the awfulness of high school (not the best years of my life). Like Holden Caulfield, I was caught in a web of angsty adolescent nihilism which cast everyone from the cheerleaders to the teachers as a chorus of fakes and phonies. I needed a gutsy female role model to pull me out of this miasma.

Eventually I found my heroine, not in the pages of a novel, but in Blackberry Winter, Margaret Mead’s memoir. I was electrified by this strong woman who didn’t give a fuck about preening for the male gaze and yet still had an amazing love life. Born in 1901, in an era when women were programmed for domesticity, she became a pioneering anthropologist and feminist icon. Her memoir, subtitled “My Earlier Years,” is not cut off at Act One, but only ends when she becomes a grandmother. Well into old age, Mead remained a mesmerizing and magnetic presence for being authentically herself.

Mead’s memoir is a rare jewel of female self-confidence in an ocean of women’s self-censorship and self-effacement. In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun observes how both biographers and autobiographers have suppressed the truth about lived female experience to force it to conform to society’s script of how a woman’s life should be.

Heilbrun then discusses the Mother of All Female Memoirs, the first to appear in the English language. The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436–38) reveals the escapades of a woman mystic who wasn’t enclosed in a cell, but was literally all over the map. Kempe’s call to adventure unfolded amid the bitter disillusionment of midlife. She was forty, a desperate housewife, a failed business woman, a mother of fourteen children, and trapped in an abusive marriage. Marital rape was her lived reality—a fifteenth child might have killed her.

Her story completely exploded my every stereotype of medieval womanhood. Her life choices seem absolutely radical by the standards of our time as well as hers.

Since divorce was not an option, she seized back control by setting off on the perilous pilgrim’s path to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. She literally walked away from her unhappy marriage and blazed her trail across Europe and the Near East in an age when very few women traveled, even in the company of their husbands.

Alas, Kempe’s independence and eccentricities drew suspicion. When she returned to England, she found herself on trial for heresy. A guilty verdict would have seen her burned at the stake, yet she kept her spirits high by regaling the Archbishop of York with a parable of a defecating bear and a priest.

Most significantly, the spiritual mentor who stood by Kempe as she made her unorthodox choices was a woman in her seventies, the anchoress Julian of Norwich. Before leaving on her monumental pilgrimage, Kempe sought Julian’s counsel. This was an exceedingly vulnerable time in Kempe’s life. In leaving her husband and children, she had broken all the rules and was filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Julian’s advice to trust her inner calling and not worry too much about what other people thought seemed to have a profoundly empowering impact on her. While Julian had chosen to wall herself into a cell and live as a religious recluse, she gave Kempe her blessing to wander the wide world.

Kempe’s story would have been lost to history if she hadn’t recorded it in her autobiography, a tremendous act of foresight and courage that made her a literary pioneer. She dictated her story to a priest, who copied it down for her and whose ecclesiastical authority gave gravitas to her narrative.

We are hard-wired to frame our experience in stories. Almost anything we endure, no matter how painful, can take on a deeper meaning if we see it as one chapter in an overarching narrative. Stories give coherence and meaning to our often fragmented and chaotic lives.

Margery Kempe’s story proves that even in the Middle Ages, women had the power to re-invent themselves in midlife and beyond. If Act One disappoints, time to dive feet first into Act Two. We can continually re-vision our own narrative.

Our culture likes to pit women against each other. Divide and conquer. Popular tropes cast young women and older women as rivals or even enemies. In fairy tales a young maiden’s coming of age involves going out into the wild forest to encounter the scary old witch who acts as a foil to the maiden’s youth and innocence.

But if we look past the patriarchal smokescreen, we see that youth and aging are mirrors reflecting one another. The maiden and the witch are not enemies. The true coming of age unfolds when the maiden seeks out the witch who ultimately empowers her. Who teaches her to be fierce and not suffer fools.  

As we mature, we are gifted with the superpower of seeing through the false scripts that consumer society hands us. We can see just how absurd it is to kill ourselves to emulate airbrushed fashion models. We understand that the greatest lover in the world can’t fulfill us until we are at peace with ourselves. And so we can let ourselves go, whatever our age. Paint the pictures we’ve always longed to paint. Learn French and travel the world. Dance under the stars and see visions. Offer our own song to the vast symphony of life.

We need stories that honor the entire sweep of womanhood, not just Act One. What would our literary canon and popular culture look like if it truly reflected the depths and breadth of our authentic, lived experience as women and girls today?

This essay was originally published in Literary Hub.

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available and will be released in paperback in April. Visit her website.

The Blessing of the Elders by Rachel Thomas

, elders are people who have illuminated my path, inspired me to see my own potential. To open my eyes, all my senses, even those I did not know I had. Elders show bravery and model for us how to be strong.

As I rediscover my connection with the earth, my eco-consciousness inspires me to transform. As I go back to nature, I re-awaken my ancient cellular memories of living in harmony with the earth. I feel called to dance barefoot, play drums, make offerings, bathe in moonlight, harvest with my own hands. As I move forward on a path which is both new and old, it is my beloved elders who have shown me how to find my way.

What is an Elder?

The word elder comes from an Old English word which also meant ancestor or chief. A lot can change in a thousand years and many of us no longer honor older people or seek out them out for advice.

In my experience, elders are people who have illuminated my path, inspired me to see my own potential. To open my eyes, all my senses, even those I did not know I had. Elders show bravery and model for us how to be strong.

My first wise woman teachings came from my family. My mother, and her mother, taught me to be myself, to love being outdoors and the importance of having a garden. Feeling the joy of flowers, cooking with fresh herbs, planting a tree to honor the dead. These are a few ancient traditions of my ancestors that have survived even in a modernized and urban setting.

Continue reading “The Blessing of the Elders by Rachel Thomas”

What is an Elder?

The word elder comes from an Old English word which also meant ancestor or chief. A lot can change in a thousand years and many of us no longer honor older people or seek out them out for advice.

In my experience, elders are people who have illuminated my path, inspired me to see my own potential. To open my eyes, all my senses, even those I did not know I had. Elders show bravery and model for us how to be strong.

My first wise woman teachings came from my family. My mother, and her mother, taught me to be myself, to love being outdoors and the importance of having a garden. Feeling the joy of flowers, cooking with fresh herbs, planting a tree to honor the dead. These are a few ancient traditions of my ancestors that have survived even in a modernized and urban setting.

Continue reading “The Blessing of the Elders by Rachel Thomas”

Margery Kempe: The Self-Made Mystic

In the 15th century, as now, independent female travelers faced harassment and suspicion.

I’ve always been fascinated with the women mystics, such as 12th century powerfrau and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, the heroine of my 2012 novel, ILLUMINATIONS. Likewise my new novel, REVELATIONS, which will be published in April 2021, is centered on two 15th century English mystics, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. Like Hildegard, they were women of faith facing the roadblock of institutional, male-dominated religion that sidelined them. But instead of letting this beat them down, they found within their own hearts a vision of the divine that mirrored their female experience. I believe it’s no mere coincidence that both Hildegard and Julian dared to create a theology of the Feminine Divine, of God the Mother. All three women seized their power and their voice to write about their encounters with the sacred, preserving their revelations to inspire us today.

While Hildegard and Julian are iconic, Margery Kempe is a more marginal figure–well-known among medievalists but much less known to a general audience. I first encountered Margery in a post-grad course entitled Late Medieval Belief and Superstition. I was blown away by the story of this enterprising woman who survived postnatal depression and a soul-destroying marriage to become an intrepid world traveler and literary pioneer. The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1436–38) is the first autobiography in the English language.

Margery’s story explodes our every stereotype about medieval women.

She was not just a desperate housewife and mother of fourteen. She rebelled against the straightjacket of an abusive marriage by becoming an entrepreneurial businesswoman. First she ran a brewery, then a grain mill. When both businesses failed and she’d had enough, she left her husband behind and took to the road as a pilgrim, traveling to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. This in an age when very few women traveled even in the company of their husbands, Margery blazed her own trail across Europe and the Near East.

Alas, like strong women throughout history, her independence and eccentricities drew suspicion. Before long she found herself on trial for heresy. A guilty verdict would have seen her burned at the stake, yet she kept her spirits high by regaling the Archbishop of York with a parable of a defecating bear and a priest.

Before leaving on her monumental pilgrimage, Margery sought the counsel of her sister mystic, Julian of Norwich. This was an exceedingly vulnerable time in Margery’s life. In leaving her husband and children behind, she had broken all the rules, and she was filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Julian’s advice to trust her inner calling and not worry too much about what other people thought seemed to have a profound and empowering impact on Margery. While Julian had chosen to wall herself into a cell and live as an anchoress, she gave Margery her blessing to wander the wide world.

Sadly, some historians and theologians try to pit Julian and Margery against each other. Julian is held up as the real saint, the real deal, while Margery is dismissed as a hysterical wanna-be. Because she had the habit of copious weeping when in the throes of mystical experience, many people, both in her time and ours, have refused to take her seriously.

Yet a number of fascinating synchronicities connect Margery and Julian. In so many ways, their stories intertwine and complement each other.

Margery was born in 1373, the same year that thirty-year-old Julian received her “showings”—the divine visions that would inspire her landmark book Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written in English by a woman. Both women lived in Norfolk, in cities less than 45 miles away from each other. Both women were literary pioneers whose lifework was lost to obscurity, only to resurface in the twentieth century.

Immersing myself in Julian’s radical theology of the primacy of divine love was a profound experience. Like Margery, I often found myself moved to tears by the beauty of Julian’s visions, by her absolute assurance that no matter how dire things may seem, all will be well.

But what took me by surprise was how revelatory Margery’s dance with self-doubt was for me. In writing this book and delving into medieval mystical texts, I discovered that our doubts, as painful and wrenching as they are, aren’t a flaw or hindrance. In fact, they lead us deeper into the divine mystery, the vast “Cloud of Unknowing” where God dwells. Only when we set aside our preconceived notions of what we think we believe the divine to be, can we enter this numinous place.

As a mystic, Margery’s especially fascinating to me, because she found her spiritual bliss not in the cloister, but as a laywoman, in the full stream of worldly life with all its wonders and perils. May we all have the power to reinvent ourselves as courageously as Margery did.

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.

All the Perils of this Night: a preview by Elizabeth Cunningham

When I wrote Murder at the Rummage Sale, my agent warned: “You have to have a sequel in mind!” I was supposed to write a second domestic cozy, same setting, same characters, different victim. But what came to mind was a memory. When I was a troubled teen visiting England, my uncle gave me a map and let me go sightseeing in London on my own. It was early winter 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging. I did not want to be an American; so I faked an accent, wore an eccentric hat, and called myself Eliza Doolittle. When a man picked me up, I did not know how to break out of character. I ended up drunk in his flat. I just managed to fight off rape. The man must have figured out that I didn’t add up and could land him in trouble. He took me back to my uncle’s office. The kernel for All the Perils of this Night is: what if he hadn’t? What if, like so many others, I had been trafficked? I couldn’t shake that “what if.”  So I wrote the standalone sequel, no domestic cozy but what I would call a numinous thriller.

In July, in honor of Mary Magdalen’s feast day, I usually post about Maeve, my Celtic Mary Magdalen. This year Maeve urged me to select an excerpt from the new novel. In the scene below Anne, teenaged Katherine’s mother, is searching for her vanished daughter in London’s red light district. A prostitute agrees to speak with her if Anne will pay for her time. Continue reading “All the Perils of this Night: a preview by Elizabeth Cunningham”

La Llorona and the Dark Green Religion of Hope by Sara Wright

Picture of Sara Wright standing outside in natureI recently returned to Maine after what can only be called a harrowing journey from the Southwest. Grateful to feel beloved earth under my feet, I walk along the pine strewn woodland paths to keep myself sane. My animals have been ill, my neighbor was hospitalized briefly, other neighbors deliberately destroyed my garden wall crushing a baby balsam, and used this property as their personal ski slope, the threat of the C/virus looms – there are no words to describe this kind of exhaustion. As a PTSD survivor all my senses are on permanent scream. The simplest task has become monumental. And I am only one of so many…

Each day I attempt to feel gratitude for what is good in my life.

Momentary peace is found in the Dark Green Religion of Hope that I experience walking under every balsam, lichen, wet leaf, deciduous tree, listening to chickadees, phoebes, juncos, and finches, meandering along the swollen brook – Just to see clear mountain waters rushing to the sea reminds me that Nature’s rhythms are my own, and that most of the time I am not breathing with her – unless I take these walks. Somewhere along the way over these last weeks I have lost access to my body (PTSD). Continue reading “La Llorona and the Dark Green Religion of Hope by Sara Wright”

Beauty, Blessings and Bistros: The Hawaiian Huna approach to dealing with the virus as well as everyday stresses by Janet Maika’i Rudolph

One of my favorite trainings I have received on my spiritual pathway is with Aloha International. I was ordained as an alaka’i (Hawaiian spiritual guide) in 2016. I began studying Huna intensely in 1997. In 2015, I personally met and studied with our Kumu Kupua (founder and shamanic guide) Serge Kahili King. I love the Hawaiian way as it is gentle, loving and teaches us to examine our beliefs, life practices and thought-patterns in a way which heals our wounds and nurtures our lives in many beautiful ways. Huna means secret but not as something we can’t share, rather something that is hard to discover or grasp like the mists of the sea. Dr. King, however, makes it easy and I am happy to share some of his teachings here.

I have several medical people in my family. They study science and closely follow journals to find treatments and cures. I bless those efforts because their findings are wonderful tools when we, ourselves, are in need of medical treatment. The shamans, however, have a different approach to disease. Instead of looking to see what medications work, we like to explore why other methods work. Placebos, for example, are so powerful that scientists must go to extreme measures to avoid activating them with practices such as double-blind studies. What if instead of working to eliminate the placebo effect, we work to strengthen it? What if our goal is to harness the power of our minds to explore how our expectations, beliefs and thoughts affect our health and well-being? Continue reading “Beauty, Blessings and Bistros: The Hawaiian Huna approach to dealing with the virus as well as everyday stresses by Janet Maika’i Rudolph”

Mother Tree Meditation by Sara Wright

A couple of days ago after an exhausting day of chores I lay out in the sun in my snow pants against the tree I call the “Mother Pine” because she shelters so many creatures from birds to bears. It was late afternoon and the sun was sparkling like a cracked diamond through a myriad of branches over my head. I closed my eyes and listened to an evergreen symphony. The songs produced by pines and other conifers as needles sway and touch soothed me. How much I loved the sound of light winds slipping through the trees.

I had recently returned from the desert where these sounds are totally absent. Instead, ferocious west winds hurl and churn dust and dirt in my face making it impossible to be outside in the winter and spring on many days. Because I have emphysema, I am too often trapped in my house by  polluted desert winds… To be present in this precious breezy moment allowed me to feel a deep abiding gratitude for the songs of trees I love… and Maine in general, although the rape of our forests continues unabated. Continue reading “Mother Tree Meditation by Sara Wright”

A Lonely Mystic by Molly Remer

I want to be a lonely mystic
dwelling in devotion,82419444_2537557396456467_4177258129500667904_o
constantly dialoging with divinity,
drenched in wonder,
and doused with delight
in knowing my place
in the family of things.
I want to weave spells
from wind and wildness,
soak in solitude,
and excavate  the depths
of my own soul.
I want great expanses of time
to be and to listen,
to feel and know,
each step a prayer,
ceaselessly walking with the goddess.
I crave the clarity of insight
dropping with a flash
into my open hands,
the clear space of listening
with no other voices in my head.
I want to pray with my eyes wide open83673511_2550947128450827_73123862618832896_o
from sunrise until sunset,
never missing an opportunity
to commune with the sacred,
to feel myself enrobed,
with divine wonder, curiosity,
awareness, and understanding.
I want to light candles
and speak spells,
weave magic from the ordinary
and listen,
always listen,
to the whispers of my heart.
I want a chamber of quietude
with only crows and owls
for companions,
the soft eyes of deer
in a wooded glade
my witnesses,
steam rising from my broths and brews,
weeds and roses twining together
into the medicine of my spirit.
I want to be quiet and contemplative,
waiting in the shadows to spot the magic,
to feel the power,
to see through to the threads of things.
I want to feel still and holy
grateful and graceful,
to be an enspirited beacon
embodying my prayers.

I am a mama mystic
I nestle children against my shoulder,
my nose resting in blonde hair and needs,
mediate disputes,
knead bread dough,
make dinner,
fold laundry,
read books,
find filaments of magic
wound around the smallest things,
claw solitude from scraps,
and weave small spells
and bits of enchantment
from moments of magic
that wander by my full hands and head.
I gently coax quiet poems
from full spaces,
let prayers wind up over days,
nosing patiently into the cracks
between my deeds.
And, with my hands in the dough,
or my nose in the hair,
or the hand in mine,
I am drenched in devotion,
dialoging with divinity,
each step a prayer,
and knowing my place
in the family of things.
This is where the goddess dwells
right through the middle of everything,
in the temple of the ordinary.
Here, she says,
this too,
is holy,
and it needs you,
not that bloodless,
perfect priestess,
of silent
secret praise.
This is the real work of living
and it shows you who

*“Family of things” phrasing from Mary Oliver.

Molly Remer has been gathering the women to circle, sing, celebrate, 65317956_10219451397545616_5062860057855655936_nand share since 2008. She plans and facilitates women’s circles, seasonal retreats and rituals, mother-daughter circles, family ceremonies, and red tent circles in rural Missouri. She is a priestess who holds MSW, M.Div, and D.Min degrees and wrote her dissertation about contemporary priestessing in the U.S. Molly and her husband Mark co-create Story Goddesses, original goddess sculptures, ceremony kits, mini goddesses, and jewelry at Brigid’s Grove. Molly is the author of WomanrunesEarthprayer, the Goddess Devotional, She Lives Her Poems, and The Red Tent Resource Kit and she writes about thealogy, nature, practical priestessing, and the goddess at Patreon, Brigid’s Grove, and Sage Woman Magazine.

Navajo Night Chant and the Sacred Dark by Sara Wright

With Winter Moon’s passage and the approach of the winter solstice just a little less than a week away I am much aware of the (potential healing) dwelling place that I inhabit that also characterizes these dark months of the year.

Unfortunately, even those who acknowledge our seasonal turnings rarely honor the dark as sacred. At the winter solstice the emphasis is still on light.

As Carol Christ writes so succinctly we manage to celebrate light at both solstices – at its apex and at its return.

This attitude reveals to me an inability to be present to dark, in both its generative and non-generative aspects. The original inhabitants of this country honored the dark months of the year very differently than westerners do. Their most important ceremonies occurred during the winter months. Both aspects of the dark were acknowledged and explicated through ceremony. What follows is a history of one of the Navajo healing ceremonies that occur only during the winter months of the year. Continue reading “Navajo Night Chant and the Sacred Dark by Sara Wright”

 The Circle of Life and Death by Sara Wright

This morning the sky was on fire before dawn even as I approached the river whose ripples reflected a purple so deep it was almost inked in charcoal – In the Bosque I noticed that one mule deer had used a juniper to scrape his antlers. Otherwise the Earth emanated precious predawn stillness except for the sound of receding river waters slipping over cobbled stones. It was mild; I thought today might be the day…

The greens I had tipped in prayer and gratitude on ‘the mountain where bears live’ were waiting to be woven into wreaths, and by afternoon the temperature was warm enough for me to sit on the porch under a milky December sun with my clippers and bag of greens. 

The sweet scent of pinion wafted through the air as I began to weave my circle of life with pinion, fir, and spruce. I wove carefully cutting smaller fronds without thinking about what I was doing, but beneath my quiet mind an intention was being set to weave a new kind of wholeness back into the trees, back into our broken Earth; S/he who is crying out to be heard through each raging fire, crackling drought, mud ridden flood. My greatest fear is that no one is listening. 

My intention is that I will listen; I will be present for the trees. Continue reading ” The Circle of Life and Death by Sara Wright”

I Celebrate Love by Elise M. Edwards

Happy Valentine’s Day!  I know, I know… so many of us do not like this holiday.  It’s too commercialized, we say.  We don’t need card-makers or florists to tell us how or when to show affection.  Some of us don’t like Valentine’s Day because it reminds us of loves we have lost or never found.  I get it.  This day can seem shallow, overhyped, and falsely sentimental.  It can be lonely.  And yet, I won’t let today pass without celebrating and honoring love.  Love is too important to concede to commercial interests.

Love, in its many forms, keep us alive and able to endure. Love is powerful because it is expansive, growing in unexpected places and ways.  We tend to separate our celebrations of romantic love, friendship, familial love, self-love, and religious devotion.  We make distinctions between our valentines and “galentines.”  Rarely do we shout for joy in ecstatic worship while also celebrating the passionate longings of our innermost desires.  But occasionally, in my religious tradition, we let our disparate loves come together.  We unite them on holy feast days, enjoying the sensual pleasures of good food and company to mark spiritual occasions.  So that’s my inspiration.  Today, I’m celebrating love by reflecting on various forms of love merged together and sharing insight from poets and mystics about the power and beauty experienced in love.

Continue reading “I Celebrate Love by Elise M. Edwards”

Kingdom of Women BOOK REVIEW by Katie M. Deaver

In her novel, Kingdom of Women, Rosalie Morales Kearns imagines a reality that is post-patriarchy, and post male violence while showing us what near-future women had to go through in order to get to that reality.  Morales Kearns weaves this story through the voices of multiple characters.  One of these characters is Averil Parnell, a female Catholic priest. Part I of the book opens with a woman visiting Averil to seek her counsel in regards to taking revenge on her male college professor who has been harassing her ever since she refused to sleep with him.

While Averil seems to be of little help with this particular conversation, we learn that Averil was one of the twenty three original female priests that were to be ordained by the Catholic Church. On the day of their joint ordination however, the Cathedral Massacre took place and twenty two of the female seminarians were killed in cold blood.  Averil then, is most definitely a woman who understands the yearning for revenge, the feeling of survivors guilt, and the expectation to be a wonderful priest for her dear friends who had that chance ripped away from them.

At the same time this conversation is taking place it has become clear that small groups of vigilante women are popping up around the world and punishing men for acts of violence against women.  The male dominated government of course sees all these punishing acts as coincidental, explaining them away in one way or another, or ignoring them completely, never imagining that it is in fact the beginning of women rising up to truly end male dominance and violence.

Continue reading “Kingdom of Women BOOK REVIEW by Katie M. Deaver”

What I Believe (Post-2016) by John Erickson

Ever since the election of You-Know-Who, I have been doing a lot of creative writing.

Ever since the election of You-Know-Who, I have been doing a lot of creative writing. Unlike academic publications, policy reports, or my dissertation, creative writing, much like my mentor Dr. Marie Cartier has written about, provided me with a needed escape from a world that seems to grow darker with each passing day.  In college, I served as Poetry Editor for the Wisconsin Review, the oldest literary journal in Wisconsin. Continue reading “What I Believe (Post-2016) by John Erickson”

The Medieval Beguines: Models for Spiritual Agency Today by Cynthia Garrity Bond

In a recent article from U.S. Catholic, Common Law lawyer Karen Gargamelli and her newly founded lay community Benincasa are profiled.  Established in New York’s Upper West Side, Benincasa, is named and patterned after 14th century mystic and theologian, Catherine of Siena. It was established as house/retreat center, the emphasis of which is placed on prayer and the pursuit of social justice.

While Gargamelli practiced housing law she found it difficult to incorporate an ethos of Christian justice and spirituality into a secular matrix of thought.  At the same time, living alone in a studio apartment, Gargamelli also felt an alienation and lack of spiritual support from her local parish.  “I have a sense that before my time parishes were places where people felt supported,” laments Gargamelli, “I don’t know that the parish is really a home base anymore.”  Gargamelli  cites the Church’s focus on sacraments, along with less emphasis on theological reflection/adult education, as perpetrators of her spiritual malaise.  Continue reading “The Medieval Beguines: Models for Spiritual Agency Today by Cynthia Garrity Bond”

Miriam the Prophetess as Guardian and Healer by Jill Hammer

jill hammer cropped

The biblical traditions of Miriam the prophetess have captured the imaginations of Bible-readers throughout the ages.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, watches over Moses in his cradle (Exodus 2), and leads the Hebrew women in dance at the shore of the Sea of Reeds to celebrate redemption  (Exodus 15).  Rabbinic lore identifies Miriam with Puah, the midwife who saved Hebrew babies from Pharaoh, and depicts her as the herald of Moses’ birth (Exodus Rabbah 1:13; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a). Contemporary Jewish feminists have established traditions of singing to Miriam the prophetess on Saturday night, parallel to the tradition of singing to Elijah the prophet at that time.   It has also become popular among some feminist/egalitarian Jews to place a cup of Miriam on the seder table at the time of Passover.  This cup is usually filled with water in order to recall the ancient legend that a well of water followed Miriam through the wilderness, quenching the thirst of the wandering people (cf: Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a).  It was even said that healing herbs grew near this well, so that Miriam’s prophetic power became a source of healing.

The veneration of Miriam is especially deep in Sephardic Jewish traditions—those Jewish traditions stemming from the Spanish Jewish diaspora, which may be found everywhere from North Africa to Holland to Greece and Bulgaria.  Sephardic women used incantations along with various rituals involving salt, herbs, and other substances, as healing for various ailments and troubles; women skilled in these practices were called precanteras or precantadoras.  Some of their healing incantations invoke Miriam as the ancestress of all women healers, as in the following prayer:

Continue reading “Miriam the Prophetess as Guardian and Healer by Jill Hammer”

Embracing the Hebrew Priestess by Jill Hammer

Jill HammerEven after I was ordained as a rabbi, I longed to be a priestess. The spiritual leadership I wanted most was less about leading traditional Torah study and prayer (though I’d done plenty of that) and more about immersing in the ocean, creating new rituals, reading kabbalistic sources on Shekhinah (the divine feminine mentioned in Talmud and kabbalah), or interpreting legends about women. My deepest desire was for there to be a school for Jewish women on a priestess path.

Ten years ago, my dream came true. In 2005, Taya Shere and I founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute to bring to life the traces of the priestesshood we were finding in the Bible, in Near Eastern archaeology, and in Jewish lore and history. In Kohenet sacred space, we explore the women of spirit among our ancestors, resist their erasure, and bring forward the practices that were sacred to them. We discover in these forgotten teachings the mysticism of the material: the understanding that in our lived experience on the earth we are closest to divinity. At Kohenet, we meet the submerged version of deity called Shekhinah, Imma Ilaah, Elat, Goddess, Divine Mother, and understand why she has been so feared and rejected, yet also has been a deep and lasting part of our tradition as Jews.

The Kohenet Institute has ordained four classes of women and now meets twice a year for training weeks at the Isabella Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, and at Ananda Meditation Retreat in Nevada City, CA. We and our students run workshops and services in venues like Limmud UK and the Parliament of World Religions, as well as classes at retreat centers, local synagogues and women’s centers. Days at Kohenet are filled with spiritual exploration: prayer in the feminine in Hebrew and English; ceremony to grant new names or celebrate elders or heal the sick; making incantation bowls in the style of ancient Babylonia; slideshows of ancient priestess and Goddess art from the lands of the Bible; drum circles and labyrinths; stories of witches dueling with Talmudic sages, immersing in the lake before the Sabbath. At Kohenet, we celebrate and embody the sacred feminine, and prepare our students to lead ritual in an earth-based, embodied, feminist way that is rooted in Jewish tradition. Continue reading “Embracing the Hebrew Priestess by Jill Hammer”

Mary Magdalen’s Cave by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegMy first post for FAR appeared on July 22, 2012, the feast day of Mary Magdalen. I like to dedicate my July posts to her and include an excerpt from The Maeve Chronicles, the novels I spent 20 years writing, which feature a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. This year’s excerpt is from Bright Dark Madonna, the third in the series, which follows her (mis)adventures from Pentecostal Jerusalem, to the wilds of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, the port city of Ephesus, and finally to her legendary cave in France.

While doing research for the novel, I made a pilgrimage to Le Grotte de Marie Madeleine in Southern France. A forty-five minute climb, past a spring leads to a high cliff wall where a spacious cave has been made into a chapel to the saint. There were no other people at the site except my husband and daughter who kindly gave me time alone in the cave—alone with her. As I wrote in FAR’s pages a while back, I have a longing for hermitage that I haven’t allowed myself to fully inhabit. Maeve, on the other hand, goes all out, or rather, in.   Here is what she has to say: Continue reading “Mary Magdalen’s Cave by Elizabeth Cunningham”

An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

cynthia garrity bondRecently I took one of those on-line quizzes that show up on Facebook. Based on my response to particular questions, it promised to tell me what my Biblical name would be. To my joy I received Mary Magdalene. To my disappointment her bio lacked any of the historical tensions we have come to expect.

On July 22 we celebrate the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection and therefore deemed, “apostle to the apostles.” For as many depictions of Mary there are just as many interpretations. Her status in early Christianity surpassed the Virgin Mother in popularity but by the fourth century her positive image began to decline. In 594 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he conflated the story of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with Mary of Magdala as penitent whore, a title she would embody for nearly 1,400 years until in 1969 when the Catholic Church repealed its teaching of Mary as prostitute.

On the other hand, recent feminist theological scholarship, especially by Karen King, offers a depiction of Mary as leader within ecclesial settings, where, “From the second to the twenty-first century, women prophets and preachers have continued to appeal to her to legitimate their own leadership roles,” (King, 153). By casting Mary as prostitute and adulteress, King argues, the church tarnished the image of Mary as a spiritual leader. It is this binary of Mary as repentant whore or “prominent disciple of Jesus, a visionary, and a spiritual teacher” (King, 154) that I wish to explore.

To begin I ask the question what does it mean for Mary’s role as leader for her to have been a prostitute who also functioned, in the words of King, as disciple of Jesus, a visionary and spiritual teacher? Continue reading “An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond”

Were Hildegard’s Visions Caused by Migraines? by Mary Sharratt

hildegard's vision of christ 2

Hildegard’s vision of Christ, surrounded by concentric circles of light.



When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.

–Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Neurologist Oliver Sacks believed that the dazzling visions of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the great Benedictine abbess and polymath, were caused by migraines. Hildegard struggled with chronic health problems. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, she described being bedridden when she received the divine command to write and speak about her visions that she had kept secret since childhood. According to Sacks, the symptoms she described are identical to those of migraine sufferers. He also stated that the concentric circles in the illuminations illustrating her visions are reminiscent of a migraine aura.

But can Hildegard’s visionary experience truly be reduced to pathological hallucinations? Continue reading “Were Hildegard’s Visions Caused by Migraines? by Mary Sharratt”

This Be My Altar by Lori Tiron-Pandit

LTP Feb2015My grandmother took me to church often when I was a child. It was not my favorite activity. The village church, surrounded by the graveyard, was cold and gloomy, and the priest demanded too much undue reverence, I thought. As a consequence, I used to spend whole days devising plans of sudden sickness and disappearance acts before church time.

One summer, I must have been around seven or eight, my grandmother told me that we would be going to a monastery in a neighboring village, and there was nothing I could do or say to get out of it. I felt betrayed by fate and bereft of hope.

When we reached the Vladimiresti Monastery, I found myself in front of a tall fence of thick, whitewashed walls, over which trailed heavy clematis and morning glory vines. It was a beautiful day, with a perfectly clear sky and balmy weather, and that first image of the monastery was so perfect that it seemed almost fake, like a movie set. Continue reading “This Be My Altar by Lori Tiron-Pandit”

Painting Deborah by Angela Yarber

angelaDeborah is one of the few women in scripture depicted as a strong leader who does not need the help of a man. The start to Deborah’s story appears bland, a mere introduction to a narrative that will later become juicy, surprising, and even a bit gory. Judges chapter four merely introduces us to a woman named Deborah, a judge over Israel. Judges is a book that records a time when Israel was without a king, so judges had to arbitrate justice, command, lead, and settle disputes. The book of Judges involves a constant downward spiral in which the people of Israel experience God’s grace; they forget God and do evil; they get into trouble and cry out for help; a judge arrives to help; the people get better; the judge dies and the people repeat the cycle.

When Deborah appears on the scene, the people have gotten themselves into trouble. We, as readers, know that because she is a judge, she will deliver them. But it’s easy to pass over Deborah’s uniqueness in reading her seemingly boring introduction. As in most texts, when we take time, we realize there is much more than meets the eye. Continue reading “Painting Deborah by Angela Yarber”

Painting Mother Teresa by Angela Yarber

angelaOf all my Holy Women Icons, Mother Teresa joins Blessed Mary in being one of the most familiar, and often the one least cited for the cause of feminism. Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, Tiamat/tehom, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is this holy Catholic nun.

When I first began the Holy Women Icons project, she was an obvious woman who came to mind, but I resisted painting her for several years. Perhaps it’s because her story is so familiar. Maybe it’s because this pillar of humility and service embodies so many virtues that have been used to oppress women for centuries. I cannot quite articulate my resistance, but it was real. Continue reading “Painting Mother Teresa by Angela Yarber”

Coming to Consciousness: Eckhart Tolle and Yoga by Elisabeth Schilling

roadBoth Eckhart Tolle and yoga have helped me become more conscious lately. As a Christian, I had always been a bit of a spiritual hypochondriac. Believing in the ultimate external body that had an opinion about my body – how it should feel, how it should be positioned – left me self-doubting and scrutinizing every moment for possible infractions. Christianity is supposed to be the peace that passes all understanding, but I think I had turned it into a moral gage that would never land on perfect for very long.

Furthermore, it was always difficult for me to believe what I was supposed to without being filled with ego about it. But let us face it, as someone who had journeyed outside those fundamentalist leanings, I was still a hypochondriac (it was simply that grad school had given me more physical conditions to be suspicious of) and completely full of ego, perhaps even more so. Except here I mean ‘ego’ not in a reductive way, but in the broader, more all-encompassing way that Eckhart Tolle describes.

One good way to explain ego is to relate the story that is found in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth but that I first encountered in Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World. This makes me think it is a familiar story to many people, but perhaps even those people will enjoy reading it here once again. Dan narrates the story as such who also tells us it is a Buddhist tale: Continue reading “Coming to Consciousness: Eckhart Tolle and Yoga by Elisabeth Schilling”

Almighty Isis by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegWhen the press began using I.S.I.S. as a perhaps inaccurate and now obsolete acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, diverse groups made a connection with the Egyptian goddess who was once worshiped all over the Greco- Roman empire. A pagan organization protested the appropriation of the goddess’s name. Others took it as a sign that the self-declared Islamic State represented the anti-Christ or confirmed a conspiracy by the Illuminati. (Divinity of any kind seems to attract human projection.)

When I was doing research for my novel, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, Isis found a special place in my heart. A lover and mother goddess, later associated with both Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary, Isis appealed to people from all classes and cultures, especially to women, respectable Roman matrons and prostitutes alike. Continue reading “Almighty Isis by Elizabeth Cunningham”

Women are like countries: both need to fight hard for independence by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaRita M. Gross in her book Buddhism After Patriarchy presents portraits of prominent women from Buddhist history. Some stories are extraordinary for the brutal details they contain. For example, Yeshe Tsogyel was raped, kidnapped and beaten by her suitors to the point that her back was a bloody pulp. She subsequently escaped to meditate in a cave.

In a patriarchal society, religious fervour is not recommended for women. Submission and obedience – yes. The life of an ascetic, a wanderer or a hermit – no. A son is relatively free to pursue religious activities (especially if he is one of the younger children and the issue of inheritance is sorted out). However, all daughters are better off tucked into a marriage. Supporting your husband and sons on their spiritual path – yes. Independent striving away from family life – no. Continue reading “Women are like countries: both need to fight hard for independence by Oxana Poberejnaia”

Witch’s Night In by Kate Brunner

Kate BrunnerThere is doctrine. There is tradition, liturgy, scripture, & exegesis.

And then sometimes, there is simply real life.

There is the precious gift of spending time engaged in deep communication with everyday women living spiritual lives the best they can while also caring for families, pursuing careers, celebrating victories, mourning sorrows, and some days, just doing the best they can to remember to breathe in and out from the first buzz of the alarm clock till the moment their heads hit the pillow at the end of a very long day. Continue reading “Witch’s Night In by Kate Brunner”

The Soul is Symphonic: Reclaiming Sacred Music

Here is a hymn of praise, a beautiful and intimate piece meant to be sung.

Hail, O greenest branch,

sprung forth on the breeze of prayers.

. . . . a beautiful flower sprang from you

which gave all parched perfumes their aroma.

And they have flourished anew  in full abundance.

The heavens bestowed dew upon the meadows,

and the entire earth rejoiced,

because her flesh brought forth grain,

and because the birds of heaven built their nests in her.

Behold, a rich harvest for the people

and great rejoicing at the banquet.

O sweet Maiden,  no joy is lacking in you . . . .

Now again be praised in the highest.

When I posted this sacred text on my blog back in 2008, I asked my friends who come from a diverse range of spiritual backgrounds to guess the author and the divine figure to whom the text is addressed. Some thought it might be an ancient hymn to Persephone. In fact, it is one of Hildegard von Bingen’s ecstatic odes to the Virgin Mary. This song, O viridissima virga, can be found on a number of CDs of Hildegard’s music.

Born in the rich green hills of the German Rhineland, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) entered the religious life at the age of eight. A Benedictine abbess, she composed an entire body of sacred music, including seventy-seven songs and a musical morality play which can be regarded as our first surviving opera. A polymath well versed in science and the healing arts, she developed her own form of natural medicine that is still practiced in Germany today. During her own lifetime, she was most famous for her prophecies which earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Since earliest childhood, Hildegard experienced profound visions which directly influenced her music, theology, and healing practices. Her visions revealed the feminine face of the divine, which is mirrored in her music. Many of her songs are addressed to Mary or female saints, such as Ursula. Even the Godhead itself appeared to her in feminine form. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, she writes, “She is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them with inscrutable mercy.”

Hildegard’s sacred songs are filled with a deep sensuality and reverence for the natural world. In her hymn O viridissima virga, she transforms the Latin word virgo, or virgin, into virga, or branch, addressing Mary as the most verdant and lushly abundant branch on Jesse’s tree. Hildegard was Christian, yet her music and visions have profound resonance for people from all spiritual backgrounds. The more I study mystics and visionaries, the more I am convinced that they draw on the true heart of divinity. They tap into the ineffable.

Sacred music was the bedrock of Hildegard’s spirituality. For her, song was the highest form of prayer, sacred harmonies rising like incense in a perfect offering to heaven. Hildegard believed that the soul is symphonic. Such is the sweetness of music that it banishes human weakness and fear, and draws us back into our original state of grace, reuniting humans to their divine Source.

Benedictine monastic life was structured around the Divine Office: eight times a day, from the dawn office of Lauds to the night vigil of Matins, the choir nuns gathered to sing the Psalms of David and other sacred songs. Near the end of her long life, Hildegard and her nuns at Rupertsberg Abbey were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication. A supposed apostate lay buried in their churchyard and they refused to allow the ecclesiastical authorities to exhume this man and desecrate his grave. As a result of the interdict, Hildegard and her nuns were denied the Mass and the sacraments—a very old woman, Hildegard herself might have died without the final sacraments or Christian burial. Yet what infuriated her most was that she and her sisters were forbidden to sing the Divine Office. Sacred song was absolutely central to her identity as a religious woman. The interdict was lifted only shortly before her death. I imagine her singing until her dying day.

What relevance does this have for us today? When I listen to recordings of Hildegard’s music, I am struck by its ethereal beauty. Nowadays, for people across the spiritual spectrum, there seems to be a dearth of good music. Much of what is sold as meditation music or inspirational music seems shallow and insipid to me. A regular church-going Catholic is more likely to experience the guitar mass than the mysterious beauty of Hildegard’s music.

As contemporary spiritual people, are we to live our lives severed from the kind of music that can truly feed our souls?

What can we do to reclaim the power of sacred song? Few of us are gifted composers. Many of us cringe to even hear ourselves sing. How do we integrate sacred music into our spiritual practice? Most of us lead busy lives and the stillness of a monastic lifestyle remains an impossible dream. Yet we might find sung devotions at morning and twilight to be deeply enriching. We might start by listening to recorded music that inspires us. From my own practice, I’ve discovered that Hildegard’s music definitely works as a backdrop to meditation and contemplation. It soothes the soul and draws the heart and mind to a higher place. Over time we might gain the courage and will to take the leap to sing for ourselves. It’s not necessary to play an instrument. The voice  God gave us is enough. The next logical step is creating our own new music.

If we can’t find the music to nourish our soul, we must create it. Hildegard took the established tradition of plainchant and wedded it to her own vision to create hymns of incomparable beauty that still move us today. Most of us aren’t visionaries like Hildegard, but we can write our own heartfelt lyrics in praise of the Divine as we see Her. We can write songs to celebrate the sacred cycles of the year and the days we hold sacred. We can take ancient sacred texts and find a melody to carry the words. Medieval plainchant is beautiful in its simplicity. Or perhaps a haunting old folk air will inspire you.

When you offer your songs as prayers, sing like you mean it. It’s not a performance to impress other humans but a pure act of devotion. Meet together with friends in an informal devotional gathering. Share your songs. Inspire each other. Our modern sacred music will inevitably keep evolving as people compose new songs and add to the canon. We each have the opportunity to be part of this evolution.

Mary Sharratt is the author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen (Houghton Mifflin 2012, Mariner 2013), winner of the Nautilus Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World. Visit her website.


Sacred Music Discography:

Hildegard von Bingen:
11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, Anonymous Four, Harmonia Mundi, USA.
The Dendermonde Codex, Dous Mal/Katelijne Van Laethem, Etcetera.
A Feather on the Breath of God, Gothic Voices, Hyperion.
Canticles of Ecstasy, Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
Voice of the Blood, Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.

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