Category Archives: John O’donohue

Mary Giving Birth

It is a breach birth. The child’s life hangs on a breath. The young mother, screaming with the pain, understanding the danger, is overtaken by terror. “No!” she shouts, “don’t let my baby die!” The young nurse, clothed in the white habit of a nun, uses all her skill to turn the baby, to draw him alive, whole, and show him to his mother.

This fragment from the 2013 film “Philomena”, brings alive the raw pain and terror that can accompany giving birth, raising some new questions within me about Mary’s birthing of Jesus.

But this is Philomena’s story. I watch the film, and wonder, was Mary standing near this achingly young woman, so terrified, so alone? Was she perhaps standing behind her, holding her, as Philomena gave birth to her son Anthony? Was Mary guiding the skilled hands of the young nun who delivered him?

If so, I believe her heart would have broken at the unfolding story as did Philomena’s. Mary would have wept tears of compassion to see Anthony taken away by his American adoptive parents from the Irish convent where he was born, where he lived for a few short years, while his mother worked off her “debts” in the Convent Laundry, permitted only one hour with her son each day.

The true story of Philomena is a wrenching tale of a fifty-year search for her son, finally ending when a journalist takes on the search with her in hopes of a good story.

Secret dealings. Cover-ups. Burned records. As the treachery of the “Sisters of Little Mercy” is revealed, what is most horrifying is the cold righteousness of an older nun who justifies it all because these young women got what they deserved for their sins, whereas she herself, true to her lifelong vow of celibacy, is ready to welcome the Lord Jesus…
In what I consider the best line of the film, the journalist tells her that when Jesus does come, “he will overturn that (^&*%ing) wheelchair and dump you on the floor.”

“Philomena” shows the power, the passion, the aching tenderness of a mother’s love for her child, love enough to fuel a lifetime’s search and longing.

Philomena’s all-consuming love for her child sheds light for me on Mary’s passionate love for her infant son. The film brings emotional intensity to an aspect of Mary’s life that can be missed when the story focuses on the struggles of Joseph to understand, on the dangerous, cold, uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem. We sigh over the no-star accommodations in the stable, the rough bedding, the hovering odours of the animal companions, but do we ever really take time to focus on the heart of the story?

What must it have been for Mary to embrace the beloved one, drawn forth from her body, to press his small mouth to her full breast?

John O’Donohue comes closest to imagining both the pain and the bliss:

No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.
Even the moon leaves her when she opens
Deeper into the ripple in her womb
That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.

Someone is coming ashore inside her.
A face deciphers itself from water
And she curves around the gathering wave,
Opening to offer the life it craves.

In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,
She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.
A red wire of pain feeds through every vein
Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.

Outside each other now, she sees him first.
Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.
(John O’Donohue Conamara Blues)

To carry us through these post-Christmas days, let us hold this fragment within us:

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“She sees him first, flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.”

 

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Mary: Seeking a Friend in Mystery

 

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Gospel of Luke: 1:39-45)

This moment in Mary’s story is so familiar that we may miss its deeper meaning. As a child, I was taught that it was about Mary being so unselfish that her first act following the angel’s visit was to rush over to assist Elizabeth who was six months pregnant.

I see it differently now. Now I know that when annunciation happens, when life is upturned with an unexpected invitation to gestate, nurture, birth newness, our hearts, like Mary’s, long for the presence of someone with whom to share the joy. Each of us experiences in those moments the absolute requirement of being with someone who knows mystery in the depths of her own being, as Elizabeth does.

Would not each one of us set out at that time and (go) as quickly as (we) could to the embrace of a friend whose gaze mirrors our wonder and delight?
Irish poet John O’Donohue puts words to Mary’s longing in this poem:

The Visitation
In the morning it takes the mind a while
To find the world again, lost after dream
Has taken the heart to the underworld
To play with the shades of lives not chosen.
She awakens a stranger to her own life,
Her breath loud in the room full of listening.
Taken without touch, her flesh feels the grief
Of belonging to what cannot be seen.
Soon she can no longer bear to be alone.
At dusk she takes the road into the hills.
An anxious moon doubles her among the stone.
A door opens, the older one’s eyes fill.
Two women locked in a story of birth.
Each mirrors the secret the other heard.
(John O’Donohue in Conamara Blues)

As we take this fragment of Mary’s story, holding it in the light, seeking for a likeness between her story and ours, what do we glimpse? How does her song resonate with ours? When have we known what it is to awaken as “a stranger to (our) own life”?
Is there not in each one of us the fragility of something so utterly unimagined, yet wholly real, appearing in a morning’s glimpse, disappearing in evening’s shadow…. that we require a mirroring presence to affirm its existence?

Each of us is invited to provide the inner space for newness to gestate in preparation for birth. Each of us knows the need to nurture this newness in times of solitude. Yet we know also the absolute requirement of being companioned by one another if our hearts are to remain open, nourished, and (as Hildegard says) juicy!

Each of us, like Mary, is walking a wholly new path, one whose gifts, ecstatic joys, shuddering griefs, are as unknown to us as Mary’s were to her. But I believe Elizabeth would bless each one of us as she did Mary:

Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.

 

Mary: Re-Enchanting Advent

The First Sunday of Advent dawns in mist, a cold damp day. No snow softens the grim greyness of earth, river, sky. Geese, ducks have flown. Birdsong no longer blesses the air.
Inside my cottage, no Advent Wreath of green boughs, planted with purple candles, stands ready to light the darkness that will descend with early evening.

Living in a Universe whose beginning is still visible in deep space, knowing that what Teilhard de Chardin calls the Christic Presence, the Love at the heart of the Universe, has been here from the first moment in time, makes Advent seem to me superfluous. Why imagine a world awaiting the birth of Love? I stay away from ritual celebrations that open the four weeks of Advent.

At mid-day, I open my computer, tune into the live streaming of a panel led by Jean Houston on “Living in Cosmic Consciousness”.
“We are the microcosm of the macrocosm of consciousness,” Jean says. “We are called to implant the new codings for an emerging spirituality. We are encoded with the Universe Herself…”

Something new, yet old and very familiar is rising in me. A sense of call, an eagerness, an excitement, a knowing that something wonderful is about to happen, and that I /we /all of us are called to bring it to birth…

The day moves on. I sit by the fire, writing in my journal, as the windows of my cottage slowly fill with darkness. Is that when it happens? A remembering, a knowing that is as old as my first memory of Christmas, and yet suddenly new. The story of a young pregnant woman making an uncomfortable journey to a strange town. She does not know where, how, when she will give birth.

This is Advent.

And you and I are being called to be Mary in our time, to give birth to “an emerging spirituality”. Not knowing the where or how or when of it. But eager as she must have been, to see the new life.

What was the moment in time when we agreed to this? Do we resonate with the way poet John O’donohue imagines Mary’s moment in time?

Cast from afar before the stones were born
And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,
The words have waited for the hunger in her
To become the silence where they could form.

The day’s last light frames her by the window,
A young woman with distance in her gaze,
She could never imagine the surprise
That is hovering over her life now.

The sentence awakens like a raven,
Fluttering and dark, opening her heart
To nest the voice that first whispered the earth
From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;
Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

Where does our story touch Mary’s? Where are the meeting points? What are the words waiting for the hunger in us “to become the silence where they could form”? When our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?

From Jean Houston, I have learned that the urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of newness.

Reflecting upon the call of Mary, the call that is like our own, Jean writes:

Just think of the promise, the potential, the divinity in you, which you have probably disowned over and over again because it wasn’t logical, because it didn’t jibe, because it was terribly inconvenient (it always is), because it didn’t fit conventional reality, because… because… because….
What could be more embarrassing than finding yourself pregnant with the Holy Spirit? It’s a very eccentric, inconvenient thing to have happen.
(Jean Houston in Godseed p. 38)

Eccentric. Inconvenient. Perhaps. But nonetheless it is our call. Mary’s story gives us the courage to say “yes” without knowing where that “yes” may lead. It is enough to know with certainty that our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”.

 

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