On Sunday 19th March, Wild Wisdom School transported its learning vessel to the Russian Orthodox Church in Totnes; the Community of St Antony & St Elias. This was our field trip following on from the day we shared together around the themes of Iconoclasm and Reformation. These refer to particular periods in Church history; the inner themes to which they reflect are the themes of splitting and healing, or breaking and mending. The Orthodox Church, with its many different parts – the Russian Orthodox being one – carries one of the oldest forms of Christianity that we have available to us today. This was our reason for attending their Sunday Eucharist, in the hope to come as close as possible to the early Church, prior to the many splits. What we didn’t anticipate was that we would also be invited very authentically and personally into the experience of Christianity’s splits alongside an act that provided healing and mending of the divided relationship.
This Russian Orthodox church is contained within the beautiful home of the Very Revd Benedict Ramsden, who was leading the service today. We walked through the front door and turned right to find a small room, with walls painted purple and decked with icons, which had been converted into a chapel, or as Father Benedict called it, a temple. There are no pews – only a few seats around the sides – since it is traditional in this church to stand if you are able to. I walked over to a space near a bench against the wall, fearing that I wasn’t capable of standing for 2 hours, despite being “young and fit”. I was surprised to find, however, that it wasn’t as much of a struggle as I had anticipated. In fact, none of it was. I was expecting to have to try hard to feel the spiritual connection, to find meaning for myself in the words and motions, to keep myself from slumping bored against the wall. I did put energy into not slumping – keeping my mind and body present and practicing an open-hearted awareness, as I do in all church services I attend. But, unlike Anglican services where I am often wrestling with the medieval words, I found that I could simply rest in the devotional space created by this community. In this resting place I found I didn’t have feelings of like or dislike in response to the words spoken, the stories told or the rituals performed. I felt swept up into the worship of this community and bathed in the gold painted longings of union and integration. I felt the purity of the longing captured in icons, chants and rituals carried in prayerful hands to this moment through millennia, infusing worship today just as they did in the early church.
We stood in this small chapel with Father Benedict and two other clergy in front, sometimes facing in the same direction as the congregation and sometimes turning to face us. Father Benedict would sing prayers, and these would then be responded to by another member of clergy at the back. The effect of this for me was that of a vessel, perhaps a ship, sailing the seas towards union with God. The prayerful presence of each member of the church felt essential in the movement of this ship, each with an oar to paddle us through the waters. We stood amongst these well practiced oars-people, invited into their way of praying, and even given an oar when possible.
There were two significant moments in the service where oars were passed to us. One was during the sung Lord’s Prayer – a prayer which unites Christians across division. Knowing this, Father Benedict made simple hand gestures to enable us to sing this prayer to the same tune they sing it, thus acknowledging and celebrating what we do still share. The other was during the Eucharist, where he chose to pause the order of prayer and speak to something that would normally go ignored. In the Orthodox Church, as in the Catholic Church, it is unlawful to offer communion to anyone who is not a member of this church, regardless of being a member of another church. Father Benedict spoke to the pain of this exclusion, both for those unable to receive and for those unable to give. He spoke directly to the split that this is a manifestation of; to the pain of the split, but also to his personal belief that God wants this split to be honoured since we are not yet ready to unite. We are not ready to unite because we confuse unity with uniformity. We do not know what true union means, and therefore we must remain separate.
However, in what I perceived to be an act of healing while honouring the split, Father Benedict invited us to participate in the ritual in a different way. We were invited to walk up to the altar and kiss the chalice from which the sacraments were given, and then walk to the side and take bread and wine which had been blessed and would be given out to the community. I was moved to tears by this authentic and creative offering, in which he honoured the tradition and yet reached out to us in fellowship.
The sermon Father Benedict shared with us was about lent, which I learned means ‘spring’ in Old English. He pointed to the daffodils outside and said that lent is about joy, not severity and abstinence, which is how it is often perceived. It is a time to clear space, to cleanse and to purify, so that the buds of spring can find their way to the surface, and the joy of this blossoming can be celebrated. On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after 3 days of darkness, just as the darkness of winter gives way to the brightness of spring.
I left the church feeling so full of gratitude for this experience; an experience of splitting and healing, and a doorway into my journey of lent…
Sam and Kengo foraging in the wilds of Dartington
Flowering primrose, enjoyed by human and non-human foragers alike
As we gathered on that Saturday, I felt very unsettled – too many bubbles and loud gurgles in the normally quiet, deep well. But then that was the underlying theme of our day. Iconoclasm: splitting and healing, breaking and mending; the disturbance suggested by the subject was already in the room.
In our initial sharing we talked about our sense of the broken-ness of everything, of struggling to be ourselves and knowing how to respond to an increasingly frightening world, of seeing ourselves as the “right” size, neither inflated or deflated. And then the water in the well stilled a little , and we found ourselves thinking again of Wisdom; clever people know many things but not necessarily the best way to use that knowledge – therein is a split. Wisdom is different and opening to Wisdom’s understanding is part of healing the split.
As we talked about our experience of the different aspects of ourselves, we named our feelings of fragmentation. And in witnessing it all, being willing to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity, we discovered the possibility of unity. Once again we had settled into community and were drinking from the deep well.
After a break, and sustained by wonderful cakes and biscuits (Lent was still two weeks away after all) Sam led us through 1,800 years of history in an intense and fascinating tour de force. We learned something of the many splits, schisms and divisions as Christianity grew from a small Jewish cult based on one of several charismatic teachers to a major global religion: institutionalized, political, imperialistic and yet fragmented in spite of all efforts to impose a unified doctrine.
And during this journey we had numerous encounters with women who probably had prominent roles in the early church but have quietly been written out of mainstream history. We know about the Apostles’ apostle, Mary Magdelene, but what about Phoebe, Thecla, Chloe, Prisca and Junia, not to mention the Desert Mothers?
An image of a woman teaching or leading a religious ritual from St. Priscilla’s catacombs in Rome.
And as well as these ministers to the Divine, there is also evidence of the Divine Feminine as expressed in these beautiful words from a Syriac Christian hymn:
On this day let everyone garland
The door of their heart. May the Holy Spirit
Desire to enter in its door to dwell
And sanctify. For behold, She moves about
To all the doors to see where She may dwell.
When we reached the Reformation, we were face to face with another split. There was a clear need for reform and the excesses of the church were manifest in many many dimensions. At the same time, the reforms that took place destroyed much of the visual beauty in our churches as well as some of the richness of the ancient liturgical rituals. The intolerance of images in churches seems to me to miss the point that deep devotion can come from the contemplation of an icon, and that learning can happen in different ways. I cannot help feeling that aspects of the Reformation left the Church a colder, bleaker place and I am more drawn to holy places that allow the celebration of the divine through the imagination and creativity of the human spirit. Through beauty. Our field trip the next day was testament to the love and acceptance that is possible when beauty is allowed in.
It is difficult to do justice to Sam’s whistle stop tour and I am still left with a sense of disturbance and of sadness for what we have lost. And in today’s troubled world we continue to repeat things from the past, creating new splits and schisms, creating “icons” out of superficial and materialistic things and people…….. I know which of these two images I would rather dwell on!
Virgin and Christ Child. Fresco in Chora Church, Istanbul
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, often described as iconic
After a companionable shared lunch we had some quiet time, mostly out of doors as the spring sunshine was irresistible. Then our meditation: a deeply personal invitation to meet with an aspect of ourselves that is broken, something unwelcome or challenging. In it, we were given the opportunity to witness how our inner wisdom responded, and in doing so to find a place of healing the split. A very nourishing way to head towards the closing of our day which ended with another of our joyful Ramshackle Rituals.
Sam left us with a lovely metaphor. There may be many diverse fish and indeed, other beings, in the pond or the sea. They are separate and they all held by the same water. Unity is possible.
In the magical time of the approaching winter solstice and Christmas, we gathered once again to share our experiences, our wisdom and our food, and to listen to Wisdom’s Call. And what a rich day it was!
Sometimes, even when I think I know a bit about a subject, I encounter something that quite simply takes my breath away. Bear with me and I will try and explain.
Our Wild Wisdom journey started in deep time and we have encountered many manifestations of wisdom as we explored the unfolding cosmos. We marveled at the creativity of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages, wandered through Mesopotamia and met Inana, paused in Egypt with Isis and Osisris, returned to these lands where we stirred Ceridwen’s pot, then touched on the Grail traditions through the Loathly Lady. Travelling eastwards again to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the Mary-Jesus mysteries.
Our most recent gathering stayed within the biblical tradition but travelled back in time to around 500BCE where, in the Hebrew bible, we read of Hokmah or Wisdom. “Hokmah” is a feminine noun and so whenever Wisdom was invoked, it would have been heard and experienced as feminine. And She is everywhere in the Wisdom books of the Bible! As the Bible was translated into Greek, Hokmah became Sophia and also the masculine Logos and, in the English translations, the more gender neutral Wisdom.
Sam talked to us about the emergence of Greek philosophy and how that, and language, meant that Wisdom as an expression of the Divine Feminine went underground – taken over by Logos and Spiritus Sanctus – until Sophia was quite literally dug up in 1945 at Nag Hamaddi. Greek Philosophy and the Gnostic tradition are fascinating and huge subjects – too big to explore here.
What I have found astonishing is revisiting Wisdom in the existing forms of the Bible – that have been here all the time. Here I find no erudite, learned, remote figure who represents some sort of unearthly knowledge or understanding. Instead, I experience her as God’s co-worker, a powerful all pervading presence – as fiery and feisty as any goddess I’ve encountered in other wisdom traditions. But perhaps the most breathtaking for me is the glimpse of this Divine Feminine as a hugely active, energetic force with an intense love for humanity. In just one small section of the Book of Wisdom (Ch. 10) I read:
“Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world / When the earth was flooded …….. wisdom again saved it / Wisdom rescued from troubles those who served her / she guided him on straight paths / she stood by him and made him rich / She protected him from his enemies, and kept him safe from those who lay in wait for him/ wisdom did not desert him, but delivered him from sin. She descended with him into the dungeon, and when he was in prison she did not leave him / she guided them along a marvelous way, and became a shelter to them by day, and a starry flame through the night”
She is busy, interventionist and ferociously compassionate in the stories of Noah, Daniel, Joseph and many others. Like the Shekinah, who travelled with Adam and Eve when they were exiled from Eden, She has never left us. She provides the balance our troubled world needs so very badly today.
And the idea of Wisdom as an active principle infused much of what we did for the rest of our day together. We reflected on transformative alchemical experiences in our lives and what they had taught us about our own wisdom paths; in doing so we talked about how we could actively foster them by understanding what helped and supported and what got in the way. We did a beautiful guided meditation which led us to taste the fruits of wisdom, but also to bring the fruit back into the world. And then we did an exercise based on Roberto Assagioli’s “stages of the act of will” to distil our reflections into one small, achievable action.
It was hard work. But it was powerful and fulfilling and we were, as ever, sustained by a gorgeous lunch of apple harvest soup, salmon and a squash and cranberry salad that fed us with its jewel like colours before we even tasted it! There were also multiple offerings from Ernestina the Urn along with mince pies, a Yule log and various other goodies.
Helen’s beautiful salad
For those of us who wanted to stay active in the quiet afternoon time, we were offered the craft of traditional beeswax candle rolling. It is a process that cannot be rushed – the beeswax sheets insist on being worked slowly and deliberately. It took me an hour to make two small candles, but it was an hour of intense, embodied focus and I felt centered and very calm at the end of it. Yet again I am reminded of the wisdom of the bees.
Sheets of beeswax and wicks
Rolling the candles
In our co-created closing ceremony, lovingly renamed by Sam as our Ramshackle Ritual, we remembered absent members of our Wild Wisdom community and we asked for blessings on all the children of the world who are living without love, on refugees especially in Syria and the Yemen, and on all the dispossessed. And we ended with a feisty rendering of The Holly and the Ivy which honours both the pre-Christian and Christian traditions of the season.
I have thought a lot about Wisdom’s Call in the few days since our gathering.
We all shared our sense of impotence in a world where so much seems to be going badly wrong and where we find ever new ways to inflict pain on our beloved planet and on each other. But somehow, I am finding deep comfort in those moments when I can be still and listen for Wisdom and her call, because call She does. And if I can hear Her from time to time, and respond by taking action – one small step at a time – and if you can, and others can…………..
Many blessings at this darkest time of the year, and may the returning light nourish hope and wisdom in us all.