Sophia in Greece

Her presence can guide us in darkness, embrace us fill us. Yet our experience of the Sacred Feminine Presence is fragmentary at best. In these reflections on the Sophia I offer glimpses: hints of her loving presence in ancient stories, rituals and prayers, in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as well as in the gnostic gospels. There are sacred sites throughout the planet that honour her. In earlier writings, I have encountered this presence in Ireland and in Egypt. Today I share with you a visit to the sacred site of Eleusis in Greece during a study tour led by Jean Houston in May of this past year.

Try to take this in. We are standing on stones that predate the Christian era, in an open theatre-like space in EleusisGreece Eleusis ipod 119is, twenty kilometers beyond Athens. Our Greek guide, Calliope, tells us that this is where the initiates, who came here to take part in the annual religious rites known as the Eleusinian mysteries, would have gathered. Unlike us, they would have undergone a ritual cleansing in Athens before beginning the walk to Eleusis. Along the route, known as the Sacred Way, they would have paused to place offerings in tiny cavern-like openings in the rocky outcrops beside the road. Crowds would have gathered to watch their progress.

At Eleusis, there would have been a welcome, some explanation of the ritual that would follow, a telling, perhaps even a re-enactment, of the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.

Demeter, corn goddess, giver of the earth’s abundance, weeps for her daughter, Persephone, who has been seized by Hades, god of the underworld. Her grief and rage at this loss are so terrible that she tells Zeus she will wither the earth’s food crops until he forces his brother god Hades to send Persephone back to her. Only when the earth’s plants wither, threatening starvation, does Zeus give in. A truce is agreed upon: Hades will release Persephone for half of each year, but she must return again to the underworld. It is the myth of the seasons, of the maiden who returns after each barren winter bringing spring’s abundance.

Though the story has survived, the details of the ritual have never been discovered. The initiates who took part in what we know as the Eleusinian Mysteries were bound to secrecy under pain of death. The Mysteries began in Greece around the first millennium before Christ and continued, spreading into the Roman Empire, until the 4th Century of the Christian Era.

It is believed that the ritual, based on the Demeter /Persephone story, had a three-part theme: the descent (loss), the search and the ascent. Following their arrival in Eleusis, the initiates would have rested, then had a day of fasting to honour the grief of Demeter. The ritual would follow. Calliope points to the earth beneath our feet, telling us that the initiates would descend underground for the ritual. Its focus was the overcoming of any fear of death, though how this was enacted is unknown. But as the ritual was drawing to a close, light would have begun to seep upwards from the underground. Soon after that, the initiates would emerge, radiant with their experience.

The day before our journey to Eleusis, Jean Houston had prepared us for the experience by speaking of the Greek understanding of the need to “die before you die”. As we travelled by bus, Jean led us in a visualization/meditation. We were invited to imagine ourselves entering the underworld, being clothed in earth, masked by earth, resting in death….then asking, “What are the aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us, serve life?” These we name and allow to die…. We remove the mask of earth that covers face and body. We emerge, freed to live more fully, more joyously, set free from the burden of those behaviours, those needs, those fears, that have kept us captive. We rise: quiet, composed, centred, unafraid, ready to love.

Now Calliope directs our gaze upward. High above us sits a small Christian/ Greek Orthodox church. Calliope tells us that a Church dedicated to Mary often hints at a pagan temple to the goddess beneath it. Our guide goes on to say that Christianity in Greece has blended many of the older pagan rituals into itself. On the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, November 21st, there are rites celebrated in that little church dedicated to Mary that contain some aspects of the more ancient Mystery rites.

After Calliope’s introduction, we move further into the site to an ancient cave, its dark mouth appearing to us like an opening to the underworld. Here members of our group have been invited to enact the story of Demeter and Persephone. Peg Rubin, an actor of immense power, co-leading this journey with Jean Houston, plays Demeter. As she pours out her grief for lost Persephone, I am suddenly weeping. Not for Demeter, but for the woman whom I heard interviewed on CBC Radio shortly before l left for Greece. The mother of one of the school girls abducted in Nigeria, she was speaking through a translator of her unbearable grief. Demeter’s words are a cavern taking me into the grief that shrivels the planet today, all the lost daughters, all the grieving mothers living on this earth.

There is a thread, a ribbon of blood-red, that runs through the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone, through the Eleusinian mysteries, through Mary mother of the Christian era, into our time when our planet’s need for mothering is greater than ever. By whatever name we know her, however we cry out to her, this presence awaits us, runs towards us, arms outstretched.

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Mary’s Call, Our Call

What we know of Mary’s life is fragmentary, and yet her story holds the power to illumine and grace our lives.

When we first meet Mary in the Gospels, she is being offered an invitation. Here is how the Irish poet John O’Donohue imagines the scene:
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”. This might be a question to ask in our daily contemplative time… when our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?

From Jean Houston, I have learned that now there is no time for us to modestly refuse any call that smacks of greatness. The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of newness.
Here are Jean’s words, reflecting upon the call of Mary, the call of each of us:
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 that certainly our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”.

Like Mary, we are called to birth newness for our time. The beautiful image from Christine Lore Weber, to be “a cup to catch the sacred rain” is like Mary’s call. We respond, as Mary did, with a commitment to be actively engaged in this “catching”. Each day we make a time, choose a space, and open ourselves to be recipients of the sacred rain. Rain which will be drawn into the earth of our being where it might bring about miracles of new growth.
We hold ourselves in readiness for the more that will be asked when the time is right. That “more” is compellingly described in the teachings of Jean Houston:
“We are godseeds planted in a space/time vehicle….always yearning, and questing, and drawn by the lure of becoming until we reach the destiny that has been guiding us all along.”

This requires us “to present the availability of an unobstructed universe both within and without”.

And Jean promises: “When you do this, you become a beacon, an evocateur of new patterns, new relationships, new discoveries, bringing new mind and new matter to an old world and serving as a catalyst of change, a pathfinder of deeper realities.” (Jean Houston in “The Holographic Butterfly Retreat” December 2012)

Mary Waited

As we approach the Feast of Christmas, Mary, of whom the Gospels say so very little, is herself a silent figure. She who said “yes” to the call to bear a Son whose coming would alter history, is given no lines in the First Christmas play. Luke writes of angels singing, urging shepherds to go to seek the newborn Child. He adds,” As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Gospel of Luke 2:19)

How was it for Mary in the months, weeks, days as she awaited the birth of her Son?

It is not possible for me to imagine myself into this time in her life, nor to summon up any experience in my own life that might help me to understand what was in Mary’s heart as she waited.

Frustrated, I put on high boots and a warm jacket. I go outdoors on this snow-melting day to walk along the Nature Trail that winds between stands of evergreens to the ruined railway bridge above the Bonnechere River.

What I notice first is utter stillness. Not only the trees, their limbs, branches, twigs and needles, but even the left-over tall weeds of autumn are motionless.
Waiting, I think. They are waiting. But for what? for whom? and why?

As my boots sink deep into wet snow, creating a fresh pattern beside the marks left by animals, I continue to wonder about the trees. There is a quality of presence in these woods that speaks of quietly-held strength, invisible energy.

A memory returns from late last winter, when there was still no visible sign of spring. I was standing beside a delicate silver maple that hovers just at the river’s edge. I had placed my palm on the strong slim trunk that erupted above me into a rack of apparently dead branches. I wondered how the tree felt knowing she appeared to be so lifeless. As though she were responding to my question, I suddenly knew that the tree’s sense of herself came not from this barren outer form but from her inner life, her sap already rising, preparing for the new life of spring. She knew herself by her energy, by the movement of life within, only barely contained, ready to push beyond this apparent death out into fullness of life.

That evening, I came across a poem from Hafiz, a promise to the tree, to me:
Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,
For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown in an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.
Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy…
A life–giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come…..
(Daniel Ladinsky trans. in “The Subject Tonight Is Love”)

Today as I begin the walk home, the early darkness already rising around me, I feel I have begun to understand something about waiting: the trees’ waiting, Mary’s waiting and my own. Expectant waiting is an active experience. It is rich with joyous anticipation, strengthened with deep trust in the promises given, and busily engaged in the work of nurturing the “divine seed” that Hafiz speaks about.
For “Love will surely bust (us) wide open into an unfettered blooming new galaxy” bringing “a life–giving radiance”, bringing “the Friend’s gratuity”.

This time of waiting in Mary’s life invites us to wait with her, companioned by her barely-contained anticipation. But there is more.

For, if we can begin to know that Mary has become for us in our time, when our need is so great, an expression, a manifestation, a presence of the One in whom ancient peoples lived and moved and had their being, our waiting is turned inside out! Then we might glimpse that the winter trees, the snow-covered earth, the entire aching planet, and we ourselves are held within a womb, nurtured from the life, the body, of the Great Mother. And that what we are each awaiting is our own birth into the fullness of life to which we are called.

The mystic-poet Jessica Powers expresses this beautifully:
I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.
And on one night when a great star swings free
from its high mooring and walks down the sky
to be the dot above the Christus i,
I shall be born of her by blessed grace.

I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place,
with hope’s expectance of nativity.
I knew for long she carried me and fed me,
guarded and loved me, though I could not see.
But only now, with inward jubilee,
I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:
someone is hidden in this dark with me.
(Jessica Powers 1948)

We. Wait.

Brigid Cailleach, Midwife to A new World

The crone or “cailleach” is an important part of the ancient Celtic tradition. With her blessing, today’s blog features excerpts from an article written by the great Celtic scholar Dolores Whelan (www.doloreswhelan.ie)

Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife to a New Worldmaiden_mother_crone_jpg_320_320_0_9223372036854775000_0_1_0
Reflecting on the turmoil present in the world today it is clear to all, but those steeped in denial, that all is not well. It seems that something ails us humans; something that causes us to live in ways that disrespect our mother, the living earth, and all our relatives. We ask what is it in us humans that creates such a restless world where there is little sense of belonging, nurture or home and which causes so many of the species with which we share this planet to suffer?

The exclusion of the Feminine energy in our naming and understanding of the Divine is reflected in a corresponding absence and valuing of feminine energy in all aspects of life in western society. The devaluing and exclusion of the feminine energy over the past centuries has created a distorted story about life which has resulted in a world whose shape and vibration creates disharmony.
So how do we find our way back to a more harmonious way of life? If we know what is missing and what ails us, it may be possible for us to make the journey back towards wholeness and health.

At the present time there is a wonderful re-emergence of aspects of ancient spiritual traditions by people all over the world. The reconnection and embodiment of these ancient spiritual traditions, myths and stories has the potential to release the spiritual power needed for us to become agents of transformation within our society.

To include the presence of the divine feminine energy in creating a world whose shape is more wholesome requires a fundamental reclaiming of the essential role of the feminine in all aspects of life. In order to create change within the physical world and in our society it is necessary to change the dreams and stories held within the imagination of a society.

My own journey over the past 25 years has been primarily within the Celtic spiritual tradition. This tradition which has emerged over many millennia continues to evolve. It includes the wisdom of the megalithic, the pre-Christian Celtic and the Christian Celtic traditions as they met and engaged with each other through the ages. I believe the rekindling of the flames of this tradition, which have lain dormant for many centuries, “like coals under the smooring awaiting a new kindling” holds a key to the recovery of the wisdom needed to create a more sane society.

“God is good and he has a great mother!” a statement sometimes heard in Ireland, reflects an important truth at the heart of the Celtic spiritual tradition, one that honours the presence of the divine feminine and understands that even God emerges out of the feminine energy of being-ness. The Divine Feminine is present at the heart of this spiritual tradition and plays a central role in both Celtic spirituality and Celtic culture.

There are many goddesses within Celtic mythology; however, Brigid as both goddess and saint, occupies a central place as representative of the Divine Feminine within Celtic tradition. Reconnecting with and re-membering the spirit and archetypal energy of Brigid, in both her Goddess and saint manifestations, is an essential task of this renaissance. Brigid, although normally associated with the maiden and mother aspects of feminine energy, is also expressed in the cailleach form….

Each aspect of this trinity occupies a different role within the life, death, and rebirth continuum. The Feminine energy is both the harbinger and the birther of new life and is the destroyer of life that has been spent. It is experienced at the thresholds of life and death and rebirth.

The role of … Cailleach…. is the wellspring from which Brigid’s power manifests in the world.

What then is the energy associated with the hag, crone, or cailleach aspect of the divine feminine? The cailleach is the embodiment of the tough mother-love that challenges its children to stop acting in destructive ways. It is the energy that refuses to indulge in inappropriate personal or societal dreams. It is the energy that will bring death to those dreams and fantasies that are not aligned with our highest good. Yet, this cailleach energy also will support the emergence and manifestation in the world of the highest and deepest within us. It will hold us safely as we embrace the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is an energy that insists that we stand still, open our hearts, and feel our own pain and the pain of the earth. This is the energy that teaches us how to stay with the process when things are difficult. This energy will not allow us to run away!

Her way of being is a slow, inwardly focused way, with minimum outward activity: a way that values…active waiting that pays attention and allows life to unfold.

An essential part of the journey that all the great heroes and heroines in world mythologies undertake includes facing and embracing the energy of surrender, darkness, and death. The hero or heroine learns the next step required in their outer world journey only by submitting to and being initiated into the dark world of the cailleach.

Through this initiation the mature masculine power can emerge and lead each one to find their true path. When this happens the action that follows will be in the service of the true feminine and bring forth wisdom and compassion creating new life, vitality, and sustainability.
Dolores Whelan ???????????????????????????????

An Embodied Presence

As I continue to experience and reflect upon the ways the Sophia Presence reveals herself to us, I am coming to understand that hers is an embodied presence. As Maiden, as Mother, as Crone, within mystics of the past or women present in our lives, she shows herself in moments of light or deep need.

I met the Sacred Feminine Presence through someone I would call a true Baba Yaga. Many years ago, I interviewed a woman renowned for her wisdom and holiness. She lived in the deep woods by the Madawaska River in the Ottawa Valley. Her name was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Like the Baba Yaga, she was Russian. Catherine, from an aristocratic family, had escaped from the Revolution barely alive after almost starving at the hands of the Red Guard. Arriving in Canada in 1921, she vowed her life to God, working for a time in Toronto, then in Harlem operating Friendship Houses for the poor. In 1947, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, settled in the Madawaska Valley, creating Madonna House, a community of love and world-wide service that flourishes today, more than twenty- five years after her death.

On that October day in 1979, when I travelled from Ottawa to interview her, Catherine was 84 years old. I had prepared my questions carefully, rehearsing them on the three-hour drive. Armed with camera, notebook and tape recorder, I was eager for the encounter, already anticipating the wonderful article I would write for the Catholic newspaper I edited.

When I arrived at Madonna House, I was welcomed and invited into the dining room where some one hundred people were gathered around wooden tables, laid with platters heaped with an abundance of vegetables and meats from their farm and gardens. After lunch, everyone remained seated while Catherine gave her daily teaching, a mixture of red pepper and honey, fire for the spirit.
Afterwards, I followed Catherine and her secretary to a small library for the interview.

What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.
You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

Whooops. I hadn’t been taking notes nor had I thought to turn on my tape recorder. Intent on the interview that would follow, I had scarcely heard a word Catherine had spoken. Now I remembered nothing.

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?
You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

But I was a modern woman, a Post-Vatican Two woman, perhaps even Postmodernist, though I did not at that time know the term. I persisted. Many people today find it hard to know how to live the Gospel in this time. Will you offer some guidance in their confusion? I want to be able to quote your words in the article l am writing for our Diocesan paper. Catherine, who is Jesus for us now?
You, a nun, ask me that? You should know the answer yourself. And if you are a nun, why aren’t you wearing a habit?

Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.
Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.
I don’t talk about my friends.

I was outraged. No one I had interviewed before had ever treated me like this. I struggled on until Catherine herself ended the interview, saying to me: I’d like to interview you. Not now. Later. You are living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart and the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you.

It was four months before I had cooled down sufficiently to write the article. In those months, inklings of insight had been making their way through me. I began dimly to understand what Catherine had tried to do. I had been speaking with a mystic, a woman who, as I learned later, had fallen in love with God at the age of six. I didn’t ask her about the great love that was the ruling passion in her life. Nor about the price she had paid in suffering and misunderstanding as she followed that love’s promptings. I sat with her, dressed in my late-twentieth-century outfit, asking about adapting the Gospel, altering it to suit the times, as though it were an outdated garment.

Unlike Vasilisa, I hadn’t the wisdom to ask her for what I really needed – fire.

Catherine had wanted to speak of fire, and I wasn’t prepared for that. She tried to cut through my careful persona, find the woman under the journalist. It would be many years before I could appreciate fully what she had been offering me. She wanted to light a fire in me, give me a skull that was aflame with passionate love. I wasn’t ready for her gift.

But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.
It’s called A Woman in Love.200px-Catherine_Doherty_1970

The Gift of the Baba Yaga

Vasalisa’s mother (see previous post), gives her daughter a doll that holds the great gift of the motherline: intuition.

Though it was lost to me, buried deep, forgotten in my life until I was well into my adult years, I have learned that inner guidance, woman’s great inherited gift, can be refound. Then a woman need only take time to ask that hidden knowing, Which way now? and way will be shown to her, or, as my Quaker friends like to say, Way Will Open. When a woman is about to ask the wrong question or say more than can safely be said, she will feel a movement within her, not unlike a tiny doll dancing, warning, No. Sometimes the guidance will take the form of a suggestion or even clearly-understood words.

But the mother’s advice to Vasalisa to keep the doll hidden, not to tell of this gift, is wise. In a culture that not only fails to honour, but frequently derides and devalues intuition, the experience of being ridiculed, laughed at, can lead a young girl, who does not yet fully value or trust her own intuition, to bury the gift. Then, as happened with me, it may take many years for her to recover and reclaim the gift.

Have you also had such an experience?

The Baba Yaga is revealed as a great power, one who is in command of dawn, of sunrise, of night, an aspect of the ancient goddess. Yet when I first heard this story I was amazed that she was so very fierce, so cruel and unkind.

Now I do not think her so. Fierce, certainly. Demanding. But notice how Vasalisa becomes stronger in her time in the house of the Baba Yaga. She asks for what she needs. She stands before the power of the Crone and does not flinch. She questions the old one and understands that some mysteries are not yet hers to know.Though she roughly sends Vasalisa on her way, the Baba Yaga gives her the one gift the girl asked of her: a burning coal of fire. This gift proves to be far more than Vasalisa requested.

Did you wonder why the doll persuaded her not to fear the fiery skull, but rather to trust it?

What Vasalisa carried home with her was the gift of deep seeing. When she reached her home, the eyes in the skull pierced through the deceit and the pretence of the three false ones who greeted her.Even had they lived, their power over Vasalisa was diminished. Never again would the girl be able to persuade herself that, at heart, they really did care for her, and wished her no harm.

Vasalisa received from the Baba Yaga an initiation that many women never gain, or else come to only far later in life. We all carry dark mothers and cruel step-sisters within us. The tale warns us that being kind and accommodating, listening politely to their attacks when their voices rise from deep inside us, enduring, accepting, even believing the deceits of these inner critics, is not the way to peace. We need to turn the fierce light that is the crone’s gift upon all that seeks to diminish our lives, our birthright of love and strength. Whether these abuses come from persons in our outer lives or from inner voices we have somehow absorbed into our being, we must focus the flame of the burning coal within the skull. “Leave me and never return”, we say, as we turn our deep-seeing crone’s eyes on them. Watch them burn to cinders.

Have you ever seen a woman, submissive all her days to others, suddenly fiercely refuse to bow to oppression? This is the wisdom of the crone, not a comforting wisdom to achieve, for one must endure seeing truths that make life harder to bear. The crone knows it all, sees it all, and is beyond fooling herself with the tissue of half-truths and bare-faced lies, the fabrications that ooze from political promise, and assurances of economists that we’ll soon recover prosperity, that the collapse of capitalism is merely a temporary slowdown, that the impending death of much of our way of life is merely an afternoon nap.

The crone has no time for fools, for those who insist there is no imminent danger in the myriad of threats to life on our planet, that climate change is myth and the hourly extinction of species just a natural process, that things will right themselves in no time at all. The crone recognizes that in our own living rooms, weapons of mass distraction dominate our lives, luring us and lulling us. Their stories, no less than their commercials, promise us that beauty, health, and eternal youth are commodities that can be bought with a plastic card.

At whatever age she achieves her wisdom, the crone knows that the cycle of life is threefold, a never-ending spiral dance of life, death and rebirth. There is no pausing forever in life, no need to despair that death is ultimate. The rhythm of life is unstoppable. The crone knows and accepts the life/death/life cycle. This knowing sets her free for the fulness of joy, and frees her as well from the deception of those who traffic in false comfort.

When you are held in the embrace of the cailleach’s tough mother love, you may look deeply into the darkness in yourself, and in your culture. You are ready to ask the questions that need to be asked, to face the destruction that results when masculine energy runs rampant without the wise restraints of the feminine. You can begin to imagine the new life that will come when a mature masculine energy works in harmony with the cailleach’s power of renewal. The crone offers you the burning coal within the skull that will lead you towards transformation for yourself, for the planet. Seize it, not pausing for words.

Begin the journey into wholeness.

The Third Aspect of the Mother Goddess

Seeking the ancient footprints of the Sacred Feminine Presence, we take the path of myth and fairy tale. Here we find beautiful maidens, loving mothers. Research by historians into the distant past has garnered glimpses of a time when the great goddess was honoured as both maiden and mother. In her guise as Mother, she holds all of life in her embrace even as the Earth does. She was known as the ground of being, the giver and taker of life. In her form as Maiden, she was seen as the power of regeneration, the rebirth experienced each spring.

Old stories are replete with maidens and mothers, but there is a third aspect of feminine power that we glimpse only briefly. She is the Wise One, the aged one-who-knows, the cailleach. In Egypt, I encountered this fierce all-knowing one as Sekhmet. For the ancient Celts, this threefold aspect of the Sacred Feminine was honoured as the Trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone. Patriarchal societies and religions could tame the maiden, subjugate her through submission to a father, then to a husband as his wife and mother of his children. But there is no subjugating of a crone. She claims her fierce power, her independence, her magic. When the castle doors fly open, kings and popes alike tremble.

Here is an old Russian tale of the fierce crone: the Baba Yaga.

Vasalisa, a young maiden on the cusp of womanhood, is the most beautiful girl in the Russian village where she lives. On her feet are shiny red boots, ready to walk with her into a life of happiness. But Vasalisa is not happy. Her beloved mother has died, her father has remarried, and her stepmother and stepsisters, all smiles in his presence, treat the young Vasalisa with calculated cruelty in his absence. Envying her beauty, maddened by her sweet disposition, they try to rob her of both by giving her all the hardest tasks in the household: chopping firewood, lighting the stove, cleaning the floors, as well as all the cooking. Her hands are becoming raw, chapped and calloused, her complexion reddened by the stove’s flames, but Vasalisa still does not lose a drop of her sweetness. “Yes, of course”, “as you wish”, “right away”, she responds to their every order.

This sweetness is like poison to her stepmother. One day when Vasalisa is outdoors chopping wood, the stepmother speaks to her two daughters in a voice that is low and husky with rage: “Enough. I can stand no more of her. Let us contrive to make the fire go out. I shall send the girl into the deep woods to fetch a live coal from the fierce Baba Yaga. That witch will make short work of her. Her bones will be gnawed by the wild dogs before morning.”

So it is that as dusk deepens, Vasalisa is making her way into the heart of the forest in search of the Baba Yaga. If you look at her white face, her large frightened eyes, your heart will go out to her, but look more closely. There is courage in the child. Watch her reach into the pocket of her apron, nod slowly and smile….
Vasalisa has a secret, a gift from her dying mother, a tiny doll she carries always in her pocket. “Hide her. Feed her when she is hungry,” her mother had said. “And when you are uncertain or afraid, ask her to guide you.”
At each turning of the forest path, at each fork and crossroad, Vasalisa touches the doll, and the doll guides her surely through the darkness.
A horseman dressed all in black rides by on a stallion dark as a starless night. Suddenly Phrygian night envelops the forest. Vasalisa walks on. Hours pass and another horseman, this one all in white upon a milky horse, appears and it is dawn. A third horseman, all in scarlet riding upon a roan red horse, gallops past her. The sun rises, red as flame.

In the full light of morning, Vasalisa comes upon a strange house that dances on chicken legs, its doors and windows securely latched with bones. “Is this the house we seek?” Vasalisa asks the doll. “Yes” says the doll, even as the Baba Yaga herself swoops out of the sky, home from her night’s revels. She hovers above the child in her cauldron, a gnarled and fiercesome creature more ugly than any nightmare could create.
“Who are you? What do you want?” the Baba Yaga roars.
Trembling, but standing firm, the child answers, “I come from the house beyond the woods. Our fire has gone out, and my stepmother sent me to you to ask for a live coal.”
The Baba Yaga snarls, “Careless people! Exactly what I would expect from you! And why should I give you a coal?”
Vasalisa answers as the doll in her pocket prompts her, “Because I ask.”
Something softens for an instant in the Baba Yaga. “Well that is the right answer.”

But then she states her terms. Vasalisa must serve her for three days, washing her clothes preparing her meals, performing whatever other chores are assigned. If Vasalisa does all to the Baba Yaga’s complete satisfaction, she will receive what she asks for. If not, she will DIE!

And so Vasalisa enters the strange house, and sets to work at once. On that and on the next evening, before she sets out on her haunts, the Baba Yaga assigns one further task so utterly impossible that Vasalisa is in despair. But as soon as the witch has gone, her doll says, “Rest now. I’ll help you with that task.” And in the morning when Vasalisa awakens, the impossible task is already done: sorting poppy seeds from dirt or sorting mildewed corn from good corn. On each day, Vasalisa devotes the hours before the Baba Yaga’s return to preparing her supper, cleaning her house, washing her clothes.

But when the Baba Yaga returns, Vasalisa watches in wonder as a surprising thing happens. The crone summons hands from the air, hands that crush the poppy seeds into juice, hands that shuck the corn into neat piles, then disappear.
The Baba Yaga appears both pleased and displeased by Vasalisa’s accomplishments. She softens enough to say, “Is there anything you wish to ask me?” before adding crossly, “but take care what you ask, for too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

Vasalisa asks about the three horsemen who passed her in the woods.
“Ah,” says the Baba Yaga, “you met my night, my dawn, my sunrise. What else do you want to ask?”
Vasalisa thinks of the mysterious hands that appear in the air to squeeze poppy seeds, and shuck corn. But the doll in her pocket whispers, “No”.
“There is nothing more,” Vasalisa answers, “for as you say yourself old mother, too much knowledge makes one old before one’s time.”

At this the Baba Yaga almost smiles. “You are wise for your years. From whence comes this wisdom?”
“From the blessing my kind mother gave me before she died,” Vasalisa answers.
Hearing these words, the Baba Yaga flies into a rage. She roars, “Speak not to me of blessings or kind mothers. Get out! Get out! Get out!” At the sound of her voice, her door flies open. The Baba Yaga shoves Vasalisa out into the night. Before the child can recover herself, the Baba Yaga is behind her. In her gnarled hands she holds a skull with a burning coal inside it. Seizing a bone from her fence, the Baba Yaga pushes the skull onto the bone and thrusts it into Vasalisa’s hands, shouting, “Here! Take your flame and go!”
The girl opens her mouth to say thank you, but her doll whispers, “No. Do as she says. Just go!”

And so she goes, returning home through the dark wood, guided by the doll in her pocket. But the grinning skull frightens her so that she wants to throw it away. The doll in her pocket, sensing this, whispers, “No. Trust it. It will help you.”
As Vasalisa at last emerges from the woods, her father’s house stands in utter darkness. Her stepmother and sisters come running out to meet her.
“We could not light the fire while you were gone,” the stepmother says.
Vasalisa notices that the skull is looking intently at her stepmother and stepsisters, with a gaze full of knowing. But unaware of danger, the stepmother seizes the burning skull from her hands and runs indoors to light the fire.
When she wakens in the morning, Vasalisa comes downstairs to begin her day’s chores. At first, she can find no sign of her cruel stepmother and sisters.
But on the floor beside the stove she finds three burnt cinders.

I leave you with this story for reflection until next week. You may wonder: What is this doll, the gift of her dying mother? What did Vasalisa really require from the Baba Yaga? What does the Baba Yaga’s response about the three horsemen reveal to us about her true identity?

Take care. Magic is afoot. And immense power.

awakening the sacred feminine presence in our lives