Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Rock Mother at St Govan's Chapel?

St Govan's Chapel is a tiny 13th or 14th century chapel wedged between the cliffs of a creek, opening out on the sea of Pembrokeshire, Wales. It is built on a much older foundation, around 6th century - 'Celtic'. You can just see the roof in the photo on the left. We decided to make it the last stage of our holiday the other week, as a kind of pilgrimage or time to reflect, before heading home. I'd been some years ago and knew it was special, but this time, I saw things I hadn't noticed last time ...

We had already been to St Non's well and chapel, and been struck by the sense of the Feminine Divine in the place - see my earlier post, St Non's Well - including the presence of two rock arches flanking the holy site. Well at St Govan's, there are also two rock arches, one on either side of the gap in the cliffs, which (I'm guessing so by all means correct me) was once caused by water erosion from a once strong stream which used to run beneath the location of the chapel and the well further down, but which has now dried up.

the arch on the right!

 These were two impressive rock arches and I found myself sitting looking out to sea, with my back to the chapel, one arch on my left and one on my right, and wondering - again - if there had been some ancient attraction to this place, and whether folk had come to sit like us, even before there was a chapel, because of the place itself. There had been a spring, after all, which used to bubble up through crevices and flow on down to the sea, and the steps are worn near the old well-housing, by the feet of travellers seeking healing.

The chapel itself is tiny and interesting. East-facing to greet the rising sun, it has a small well hole in the floor which I thought might just catch the winter midday sun. Above that is an alcove where someone had sprinkled ashes, and to the right, below the tiny 'dawn light' window, a stone altar, alleged to contain the bones of Govan himself.
Adjacent to the altar is a doorway and through here, according to legend, is a crevice where Govan hid from raiders. There are rib-like marks in the rock, which closed around him until danger passed. But the crevice smelt like a urinal, I was saddened, and decided to come back the next day to clean it.
Ray at the altar, facing East

This we did! Early next morning we carried 2 litres of water from the campsite and washed the rocks down, singing Taize chants in Latin, under our breath. Something about the place made us feel it would 'remember' sung Latin and feel soothed.
As I washed the crevice where Govan was said to have hidden, I noticed something. The ribs are just part of the story - below the ribs, is ... well, what do you see?

I took this on my mobile - behind St Govan's Chapel
I saw a female figure, as tall as myself, a mature woman in the rock, upright, naked, wide-thigh'd, arms behind her back, reddish against the grey stone. How had I possibly missed her when I visited before? But it seems countless visitors have been overlooking her for centuries, looking just above her head at the rib marks. I've never heard anyone mention a 'goddess' behind St Govan's - yet she's been here all the time, way older than the chapel.
Who did see her? Who did come here to visit her? Who told the tale for the first time, of her protective embrace of a poor frightened man, fleeing for his life? How could this place not have been sacred to the Divine Feminine, with this figure in the rock?

I left Wales feeling I had been given a gift. There's a verse in the Bible that springs to mind:

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;
   you forgot the God who gave you birth. 

Deuteronomy 32:18

I don't want to forget anymore. I want to remember. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Celtic Cross as Lifemap: Greenbelt workshop post 2

If you are in this photo and would rather not be visible, I can remove it if you contact me.
I was very pleased to welcome over 50 people to the Grove, a lovely 'fringe' sacred space created by Forest Church and friends, at Greenbelt this year, with arches and foliage marking the four directions.
Although we just had an hour, which meant we could only really begin to enter into the idea of the Celtic Cross as a life map, a lot of people came up afterwards to say that they had connected at quite a deep level and were going away feeling inspired or even significantly helped along the way. It's always really rewarding and humbling to hear such things, and thank you for sharing if you were one of those.

I was also asked if I could bring the workshop in its expanded form to other venues - yes I can! If you are interested and don't have my contact details look for me on Facebook or twitter @HephzibahAnnie, I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 19 August 2013

Celtic Cross as Life Map - my Greenbelt workshop

Cross at St Non's chapel, Pembrokeshire

I was delighted to be asked to offer a reflective workshop in the Grove at Greenbelt this year (12-1pm Saturday 24th Aug '13!) and have been having a good time planning it out. Yesterday I was out on a local field with lots of rope, forming a large Celtic Cross and pacing it out, labyrinth-like - to the bemusement of at least one dog-walker!

I took some pains to align the cross to the four directions. In Christianity, East has always held great significance. Being the direction the sun rises each morning, it is equated symbolically with the risen Christ who appeared to the women in the early morning of the first Easter. Traditional churches honour the East, the congregation faces this way, towards the altar.

Moving with the sun, in a southerly position at midday, we hear about Saul's blinding midday encounter with Christ, which challenges him to the core.
As evening draws on and the sun begins to set in the west, we can reflect on the story of the first people, who knew God to walk in the garden in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8). The north is equated with night time, rest, meditation and waiting in hope for the return of the sun.

So, we measure our days, our months, our years, our lives with the cycling of the sun, moon and earth. The church year too, falls into the pattern, interweaving holy days and seasons with natural and agricultural events, helping us to locate ourselves and live meaningfully.

But the cross allows us to return to the centre, it allows us to look back, to dream of a future, to focus on the heart, the hub of this great wheel. In the Christian faith, wherever the path leads, wherever we go, whatever our time of life, Christ is at the centre, at the heart, and Christ is encircling us.

The Celtic church had a tradition of the 'caim', a prayer of protection, recited while rotating in a circle, drawing an imaginary ring around oneself with a finger. There are plenty to choose from; here is one on the theme of a garment, from my Wild Goose Chase book (page 98), which I have drawn on for the workshop:

Encompass me, 
O God of goodness,
my form to surround,
my being to hold close
in the wrap of your loving.

We will chant from the Psalms, as we tread our way around the circle:

You made the moon to mark the seasons
and the sun knows when to go down ...'
Psalm 104:19

And we will sing a verse from Jeremiah, as we contemplate the cross at the centre:

Stand at the crossroads and look,
and ask for the ancient paths;
ask where the good way lies and walk in it,
and so find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Blessed Path: a wedding / partnership ceremony

Checking my emails after a two week holiday, I was especially delighted to receive a royalties statement from Wild Goose Publications. It's not that I'd suddenly become a best-seller, far from it, but that a particular downloadable pdf publication I'd written a while back, had been chosen by 28 people.
Those 28 people mean a lot to me. (In the micro-publishing world of small (but special) publishing companies, sales are counted carefully, book by book and article by article, and we writers get a cheque on the happy occasions that we make more than £50 in a season - about £1 per book, and for 28 downloads of a wedding liturgy, £16! )

The work in question is 'The Blessed Path, a wedding / partnership ceremony'.

I was pleased to be asked to write this by Wild Goose Publications. Working on it, I felt as though I was preparing a gift - a wedding gift - for couples planning their declaration of commitment and love to one another, on their most joyous day.

I wanted very much, to honour the dignity and depth of this commitment, and I wanted to write it in a way that would be inclusive, appropriate for all couples seeking blessing within the Christian tradition, whether straight, lesbian or gay or any other permutation of sexual preference and gender. I wanted to honour the exploration of sincere love in all its subtleties, and the increasing freedom our society is beginning to offer, to let love flourish.

Tolstoy wrote a short story called 'Where Love is, There God is Also,' Mother Theresa wrote a book of a similar name: 'Where there is Love, there is God'. Taize have a lovely sung Latin form of the saying: 'Ubi Caritas'. It's not a new idea though, the words are from an old Gregorian chant traditionally sung during the Maundy Thursday foot washing, beginning, 'Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.' Where there is charity and love, God is there. It's something I really believe: when people live in love with one another, they live in the Divine Presence.

An ancient path: the Ridgeway near Wayland's Smithy
The ceremony is based on a theme of journeying and paths. It recognises that we each walk our own path, but in partnership we commit to walking with somebody, which is a challenge as well as a delight. The paths that bring us to our life partners can sometimes be difficult and as we join hands with our beloved we recognise that the way ahead is a journey into the unknown, and that all we can do is trust in one another and in the goodness of God.

Song of Songs in Hebrew, photographer unknown

To express this sense of journey and committment I have woven texts from the Song of Songs and from the psalms together with prayers adapted from the Celtic collection the Carmina Gadelica, and stories of great love and loyalty  from the Bible - between Ruth and Naomi, Jonathan and David, Rebecca and Isaac.

If I had been asked to write the ceremony for just one couple preparing to celebrate and solomnise their  relationship in the presence of God and their community, I would have been immensely happy to do so and touched to be part of the sacred moment. As it is, that 28 people have considered using 'The Blessed Path' (and I hope some of these are using it, or part of it), fills me with gladness. Although I am waiting for my 6th book to work its way to publication as I write, I think this little e-publication expresses everything for me about the sense of satisfaction of being able to offer something that can touch another's life, and give a little companionship along the way. It really does make it all worthwhile, so thank you if you happen to be one of the 28, and may your path be blessed!

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

St Non's holy well - finding the Feminine in the landscape

We're just back from a really wonderful campervan holiday in Wales, visiting among other places, Brecon, St David's, (where my son is currently part of Festival Arts, performing King Lear and a family play, 'the Man whose Mother was a Pirate'), then on to St Govan's Head.

I particularly wanted to visit a favourite place of mine, St Non's chapel and holy well, which are to be found on the cliff tops a mile to the south of St David's. St Non is the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales, and to my mind, the more fascinating of the two. Although a nun, she was raped (or seduced,  depending which story you listen to) by a visiting nobleman. Non was obliged to leave the safety of the convent while pregnant and eventually gave birth alone in a terrible storm, on the cliff top. 
 It is said a stone on which she leaned during her labour still bears the impression of her handprint.  We thought it might be this one but are open to correction ...

 At her feet, a spring is said to have appeared, to which many used to make pilgrimage for healing. It's housed in a simple stone well.
The old chapel is in ruins, a simple Celtic cross propped up in the corner,
but a short distance away a more recent chapel has been built, close to a retreat house. The location in bleak in the winter, but in the summertime, swallows make a home in the rafters.

the chapel is particularly interesting because of its feminine focus. While we might expect the central stained glass window above the altar to be dedicated to St Non, she is not alone. To her right is the better known St Bride or Brigid of Ireland, the first woman, so legend has it, to be ordained a Bishop (see another of my posts, the Good Shepherdess), and to her left, the lesser known St Winifred, also of Wales.
 These three Celtic holy women are accompanied by a particularly dynamic statue of Mary with child.
In short, it's all women up front around the altar. There are a couple of male saints on other windows, David being one, but far less prominent. I find this quite refreshing - it's one of the things that draws me to the place.
But I also find the landscape itself quite intriguing, because the features of the location are older than the Christian tradition and to me, they too have a distinctly feminine feel.

There's something about this stretch of cliff around St Non's Bay, perhaps more apparent to travellers coming to pay their respects by boat rather than by land. A pilgrim would know which narrow cove to navigate towards as they made their way cautiously around the rocky coastline, because it lies between two distinctive rock arches, one to the left and one to the right of the spring, up on the cliff.

The rocks in one of the easiest places to scramble ashore - from a small boat at least - are a strange, deep reddish purple, shining blood-like with the sea spray.

 It occurs to me that this stretch of coast might have been associated with the feminine for a very, very long time. I see a connection, I suppose, (I have had a lifelong fascination with the prehistoric) with ancient stones such as Cornish Men-anTol, which seem (to me) to represent simply and starkly, male and female elelements (but make your own mind up!):

I'm sure the rock-arches of St Non's Bay were there long before Christianity, so was the spring, and so were the coves, cutting into the cliffs. Ancient people gravitated towards this place because of the special features they saw in it, and perhaps the spiritual presence they felt there: I can well believe it was a sacred place already, when Non came here to give birth. I wonder if it was sacred to the Femimine Divine, an auspicious place to birth, a place where Non felt safe, empowered, even though in human terms she was alone.