Musings from the Well...
Copyright © 2019 Catharine Mitchell. All rights reserved.
And she glides gracefully, loving all around her.
Through that love, from her unguarded heart
She lays a silken cord upon the earth, outlining
A place of possibility, a dimension bounded only
By the willingness to surrender to gentleness.
From this, a blossom grows, with a fragrance sweeter
Than galaxies. This love sings down empty passageways,
And sheds one iridescent crystal tear for those
Too afraid to open to her Presence.
She seems to swim in shadows, only because
All of her light is turned inward to this place of
Creation. Some will never understand this.
But she did not come here to be understood. Only
To live and love, and hold the space, that
Precious sanctuary, for the becoming of others.
This is no sacrifice. This is sacred duty.
And the joy of it is both sweeter and deeper
Than earthly love. There is no suffering when there is
The above poem was inspired by the ancient Celtic season of Imbolc, which begins February 1 (or more correctly, at sunset on January 31) and runs until the end of April. Imbolc brings with it the promise of spring. Though winter still has us in its grip, there is a seed buried deeply within which is being held and nourished and protected. The Celtic deity most closely linked with Imbolc is Brighid, often symbolized by the swan. She was associated with many areas of Celtic life, in particular creative metalwork, dairy production, poetry, and childbirth. As is often the case, Christianity absorbed these traditions, assigning the festival of Candlemas to February 2, and giving Brighid continuing incarnation as St. Brigid, patron saint of, among other things, blacksmiths and midwives.
The four seasons of the Celtic year fall at the midway points between the solstices and equinoxes of the solar year. I find that the Celtic seasons provide a helpful metaphor for how spiritual deepening works. There are seasons when our energy is directed outward, when we take what we have created out into the world, sharing it with others. But there are other times when our movement is inward, and we become more reflective, gleaning wisdom from our experiences. We ponder what we will keep (cradling the kernels within) and what we will release. These seeds need a period of gestation before we are ready to, once again, turn our gaze outward.
This time of gestation, the allowing of a slow ripening within, can be very difficult. It's so hard to be patient, especially when it hurts. A common metaphor in the spiritual direction field is that of the spiritual guide as midwife. A midwife knows the process of gestation intimately. She guides the mother-to-be through the various stages of pregnancy, helping with basic information (such as nutrition and body changes) and sitting with the her through the joys and pains of pregnancy. The midwife does not contain this life; the mother does. The midwife's task is to hold compassionate space for the mother as she participates in this sacred birthing of new life. A spiritual guide has a parallel role - the journey taken within a session is not her journey; it is the seeker's. The guide's role is to hold a safe space within which this journey unfolds, and where the seeds which the seeker has planted can be either protected and nourished, or released. It is an honour to be part of this process. Blessings as Imbolc begins!
Years of study
Countless books read, digested,
Mostly forgotten, except for that one bright
Kernel gleaned from among the verbiage -
A cloak of words to wrap myself in.
White bookshelves filled with
The musings of wise teachers
Surrounding myself with their thoughts,
Their memories, their experiences.
All bringing me no closer to something
Knocking quietly, from the
All of the work, the years of solitude,
Endless hours watching, listening,
Only prefaces to the real story.
The story you and I write when we sit
Without words. The cloak lies gently folded
On the back of the chair.
Now, we wrap ourselves in
Spiritual guidance (or as it is more frequently called, spiritual direction) has been around for a very long time, and practised within a number of traditions. In the Christian tradition, it is associated with the desert fathers and mothers in the early years of the Common Era, moving eventually from there into the monastic orders, where it remained for centuries. Only in the past few decades has the western tradition of spiritual guidance been sought after and practised by Catholic laypersons, flowing into Protestant circles, and spreading from there into other faith traditions. Finally, it has become an important listening modality for that growing demographic sometimes referred to as the "spiritually independent".
Though the term "spiritual director" is most well known, my own preference is for the term "spiritual guide". Celtic traditions often refer to a spiritual guide as an "anam cara", or "soul friend", and though my Celtic DNA cherishes this, the term is known by few. Spiritual guide it is, then. The word "guide" suggests someone with life experience who has travelled herself and returned to walk with others as they head off on their own spiritual journeys. While a guide may, at times, share insights or experience she has gleaned from her own wanderings, her main purpose is to hold a safe space and provide accompaniment as the seeker journeys, looking for and reflecting with the seeker upon what is important and/or sacred in the seeker's life.
The poem "Folded Coat" was written after a few years of working with my own spiritual guide. I am, by nature, one of those eternal students who is always studying something new, and my life as an academic and educator supported this preference. Facts, theories, and the details of a busy life filled my mind, and even retirement from teaching seemed primarily a great opportunity to study even more. There was a part of me that longed for something deeper, and spiritual guidance provided the container. A vital component of a spiritual guidance session is the practice of silence. Though at first I rushed to fill this space with words and ideas, eventually it became a longed-for space where I could stop thinking and doing and just be. The cloak of words now lies folded upon the chair. Ah - but which chair? Susan Phillips (in Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, Morehouse Publishing, 2008) tells of how she sets out three chairs for her sessions: one for the seeker, one for herself, and one to represent the presence of the Sacred. Though I do not follow this practice myself, her example reminds us that there is something that makes a spiritual guidance session unique - the understanding that there is a sacred container for the session, however that container is understood. For some, it might be nature, for others, the universe, community, mystery, or divinity. Perhaps it is understood as the quantum or unified field. (Or maybe they're all the same thing - but that's another musing for another day...) In any case, it's something, and my role as a spiritual guide is to respect how this container appears to a seeker (usually most easily felt during times of silence), and to be aware of how it enfolds us during the session. Within this awareness, I can be more present, and listen more deeply to the story which unfolds. This is spiritual guidance.