Gathering Space January 19, 2021
The Communion Birthed and Growing
The moon above the Garden of the Ruined Nunnery on Iona is in her first quarter, swelling towards her fullness nine days from now. Her light reaches us from between the low clouds as we walk towards our Gathering Tent. The air is above freezing at 37 degrees Fahrenheit, 3 degrees Celsius.
We walk quickly, eager to see our companions, to exchange news and stories of the different ways each has found to live with the daily anxiety of the second wave of COVID. Our companions from the US have had a heart - wrenching experience of violence in their capitol in the days leading up to the inauguration of their new president and vice-president. Both those courageous and grounded humans were helping out at a food kitchen in recent days, a silent testimony to their determination to act out of love, not fear.
Ellyn steps forward to light the fire pot, and speak to us.
“We are just two weeks away from Brigid’s Feast Day, February 1st, the time when we are invited to renew, or to make for the first time, our commitment to the Communion of Creative Fire. Anne Kathleen wished to tell us once more the story of our Communion's beginnings and growth and to offer us some guidelines and suggestions for our preparation for the Commitment. There will be a ZOOM call on Monday February 1st so that those of who are ZOOMBIES may celebrate a Ritual of Commitment or Re-Commitment together.
"As her whole Province of Ontario is now under strict lockdown, Anne Kathleen could not join us here on Iona tonight. Instead she sent us a recorded message. It arrived as an MP3 on our computers or i-phones, as an attachment to our weekly Communion email.
“I invite us all to get comfortable on our cushions and I’ll play the recording from my I-pad.”
Recording: “The Communion Birthed and Growing”
After the recording there is a great deal of discussion and chatter until Elspeth arrives with Bridie bringing fresh scones, coffee and tea. After that, Ellyn’s I-pad bursts forth with the soundtrack from the WIZARD of OZ. Soon we are laughing and dancing to the “Yellow Brick Road”.
Gathering Space for January 12, 2021
It is the dark of the moon on this January night. The stars have their time of glory in the skies above Iona as we walk towards our Gathering Tent in the Garden of the Ruined Nunnery.
The air is just a few degrees above freezing so we are eager to be inside the shelter.
Besides, Elspeth has promised to return with another story….
Some of our companions must have come early. The interior of the tent is alive with candle light. We each choose one of our favourites from among the forty large silk-covered cushions arranged in a circle around the fire pot. Elspeth is already seated, engaged in what sounds like a lively conversation with the women sitting near her.
"But the Cailleach is honoured among the Celts for her wisdom and her no-nonsense approach to life," Elspeth is saying, responding to an earlier statement.
"Wise maybe, but old and ugly! Who would want to live so long?" The speaker is one of our younger members, and she has supporters among much older women.
"I agree with you," says another. "If I could choose, I would prefer youth and beauty to all the wisdom in the world."
At this Elspeth laughs merrily. "Of course you would. Perhaps the wisest cailleach would prefer that as well, but life does not offer us such clear choices. We shall all grow old but growing wise is not assured… it takes determination, dedication and sometimes a long journey.
"If everyone is comfortably seated, shall we light the fire pot and begin? I have a story for you tonight about a woman younger than most of you who longed to become wise."
Elspeth begins her story and stillness holds us all. We are enchanted.
There was once a woman who was successful in all things. She had a kind partner, a loving family, and a craft for which she was justly famous. But still she was not happy.
“I want to know the Truth,” she said to her partner.
“Then you should seek her,” he replied.
So the woman put her house and all her worldly goods in her partner’s name (she being adamant on that point) and went out on the road, a beggar after Truth.
She searched up the hills and down in the valleys for Truth. She went into small villages and large towns; into the forests and along the coasts of the great wide sea; into dark, grim wastes and lush meadows woven with flowers. She looked for days and for weeks and for months.
And then one day, atop a high mountain, in a small cave, she found her.
Truth was a wizened old woman with but a single tooth left in her head. Her hair was entangled in a crown of branches. The skin on her face was the brown of old parchment and as dry, stretched over prominent bones. But when she signaled to the younger woman with a hand crabbed with age, her voice was low and lyrical and pure and it was then that the young woman knew she had found Truth.
She stayed a year and a day with the older woman and she learned all that Truth had to teach. And when the year and the day was up, the younger woman stood at the mouth of the cave ready to leave for home.
“My Lady Truth,” she said, “you have taught me so much and I would do something for you before I leave. Is there anything you wish?”
Truth put her head to one side and considered. Then she raised an ancient finger. “When you speak of me,” she said, “tell them I am young and beautiful.”
When the story ends, we sit in silence, each one of us pondering its meaning for our lives.
After a time, Elspeth asks, "Would someone like to comment on this story?"
The young woman who had argued for the value of beauty and youth over wisdom speaks:
"As I thought about this story, it came to me that if the woman who is Truth had spent her days with proper skin creams and hair moisturizers, with exercise to enhance her body and every treatment to preserve her youth, she would still one day inevitably grow old, and no one would have travelled for weeks and months to seek her. Yet, because she grew into Truth and Wisdom, she had a gift to offer to others."
Another woman speaks: "I notice that even though she had become Truth and was sought out by others for her wisdom, the old woman still longed to be young and beautiful. So I guess it's not the longing which is an obstacle to wisdom, but rather where we put our energy."
Elspeth speaks: "Let the story settle in your hearts over the next few days. See if it has other insights and gifts for you. Now, let’s celebrate the young new year with cranberry punch and some of my own Christmas baking.”
Gathering Space for Epiphany, January 5, 2021
This January night on Iona in the North Atlantic is crisply cold, barely above freezing. The moon in her last quarter has parted the clouds as she would pull aside curtains, offering us her light as we come to the Garden of the Ruined Nunnery. Tonight we will celebrate Epiphany together, so some of us are carrying trays of Christmas baking, thermoses of hot cranberry punch, and small wrapped gifts that are meant to be symbols of light. The tent flap is held wide, making room for us and our many bundles to enter.
Once inside, we find places for the food, beverages and gifts on a long covered table on the far side of the tent. When we come to take our places in the circle, we see that the planning committee has already placed beautifully illustrated booklets on each cushion. We gaze at the artwork that adorns the cover page, and at the title below:
By Way of the Heart
We look around our gathered circle of beloved friends, emitting tiny pops of surprise as one by one we notice a woman seated among us whom we have not met. Mary Ellen stands to introduce our guest: "Tonight we are blessed with the presence of someone who has come to Iona, to our Gathering Tent, for the first time. Yet this woman is not a stranger to us, for her poetry has been inspiring our hearts and nourishing our souls for years. Our guest, who is a poet, artist, and spiritual writer, has been offering a yearly Retreat for Women's Christmas. Tonight she brings us selections from her 2019 Collection. Let us welcome our guest: Jan Richardson."
Jan begins to speak: "There is a custom, rooted in Ireland, of celebrating Epiphany, January 6, which brings the Christmas season to a close, as Women’s Christmas. Called Nollaig na mBan in Irish, Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours. Celebrated particularly in County Cork and County Kerry, the tradition is enjoying a revival... As the Christmas season ends, this is an occasion both to celebrate with friends and also to spend time in reflection before diving into the responsibilities of this new year.
"I am happy to be here with you women, friends drawn together in Communion around the Creative Fire of your lives, to offer you this time to rest, to reflect, and to contemplate where you are in your unfolding path. Mindful of those who traveled to welcome the Christ child and who returned home by another way, we will turn our attention toward questions about our own journey.
"To begin our time together, I offer you a Blessing poem which I call Constellation:
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
Consider that the heart
holds its own constellation.
Consider that it has
a secret chamber
radiant with unspent light.
Consider this when you cannot find
that one star, that dream
that compels you to the road.
When every last thing seems
to have disappeared into dark,
consider that you cannot always know
how you bear this brightness
but that it holds you
and is not wasted
See how we share this sky,
how it stretches above us
beyond every border,
how every day
turns each of us
in steady revolution
through morning, night,
Or think of it like this:
that every heart is its own voyage,
sending its vessels out,
drawing them back again,
never by the same way they went
but still somehow making for
home, that place
that shimmers now in welcome
with all the gathered light
you had thought
you could not see.
There is a sacred silence as we ponder Jan's words. Then Jan invites us to read the four stanzas aloud, as a choir , with first the left side of our circle reading a verse, then the right, as was the way with the ancient nuns who once lived here on Iona.
Following this reading in choir, Jan invites:
"Consider what helps you put the pieces of your life together: the experiences you carry, the scraps of your story, the fragments that seem jagged and painful as well as those that you think of as beautiful. What response—in words, in images, in prayer, in movement, in stillness, in conversation, in solitude—helps you recognize and honor the pieces and put them together in a new way, making your path as you go?
"I bring you tonight a story of a woman who is well known to you through her writings, a woman who had the courage to tell us what she learned of Divine Love on her own life-path.
"On a day more than six hundred years ago, in the English town of Norwich, a woman walked into a cell attached to the parish church. She intended to remain there for the rest of her life. Her original name is unknown, and the cell where she would live as an anchoress—a woman devoted to a life of contemplation and solitude—no longer remains. It is likely that she took her name from the church in whose cell she lived: the Church of St. Julian.
"Nearly everything we know about Julian of Norwich comes from a manuscript she composed in her cell. In it she tells of how, at the age of thirty and a half, she became desperately ill. Just when she seemed at the point of death, her pain suddenly departed. As Julian continued to pray, she received a series of sixteen visions, which she called showings. These visions primarily are of Christ on the cross, who reveals the face of joy and love to her.
"Julian recorded her visions in a short text. Nearly two decades later, she wrote a longer text that incorporates the insights she gained through years of reflecting on and praying with the visions. Together Julian’s texts became the book known as Showings, or Revelations of Divine Love.
"In the final chapter of Showings, as she comes to the end of the remarkable work in which she reveals to us a God of endless mystery who knows and loves us in all our human particularity, Julian writes,
And from the time that it was revealed, I desired to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning.
Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.
Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.
Once more Jan invites us into silence to receive these words. Then she asks this:
As you stretch yourself into loving others, what becomes revealed to you—of them, of yourself, of God?
How has love challenged or changed what you know?
How are you opening yourself to its presence in your life?
After we have time to consider these questions, Jan says,
"I have one more poem to offer you before we begin our celebratory feast together:
Beloved Is Where We Begin
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the one
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger, from fear,
from hunger or thirst,
from the scorching of sun
or the fall of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
The singing bowl tells us our reflection time is over, and yet for some minutes all is stillness as we breathe in what we have heard, felt, seen and understood.
Now it is time to celebrate with food and drink and gifts. We express our deep gratitude to Jan whose life is offered to others as a pathway to their own wisdom, as they recognize and learn to follow their own star.