Monday, 9 December 2013

Mother Earth Father Sky

chapel within a small and old church in Exmoor

I confess I haven't been to church all that much in the last six months since Dad died. I have been finding the 'Father God' language of liturgy and many well-meaning believers' vocabulary a real obstacle: muddling up paternal mortality with the eternal divine just wasn't working for me at all. I've never been all that comfortable with it anyway. Whenever I heard 'our Father,' I couldn't get past the fact: 'my father is dead.' It all felt quite Nietzche-esque, and existentially unhelpful.
In that time, a time where of course my Mum's needs came into sharp relief, and my relationship with her changed and perhaps deepened, the divine feminine became more real and more important to me; often it seemed as though a loving presence was saying, 'Don't give up on me, I can be Mother as well, I can be whatever allows you to relate to me in love...' I've described some of my journeying deeper into the Feminine Divine in other blogs, such as Rock Mother and St Non's Holy Well. Although often hard work, this has been an enriching time that has allowed me to listen to and engage warmly with, and felt ministered to, by the spiritual journeys and wisdom of others, especially of an earth-spirituality inclination - Pagan.  I was, or so it seemed to me, finding 'Christ in friend and stranger' at a time when I was struggling to find the consolation I needed to hear from some of the sources I might have expected to find it. Here is a verse from the well-known prayer of St Patrick, the Lorica:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

But today Ray was preaching and presiding in an Anglican church not far from home, so I went with him very readily, sure of a good sermon and a sensitively offered liturgy. As usual we arrived early so he could get ready, and I picked a pew with a view, beneath a radiator.
Even though it's not a church I often visit, I had a strong feeling of having returned home after a long journey. The question quickly came into my mind, 'How might this place look, not through eyes brought up in the Christian tradition, but through eyes more used to an earth spirituality outlook?' I looked around.
Such a one might, for example, hope to find animal guides or totems. Why yes, a dove, at the highest point of the stained glass window above the altar; a glorious eagle in flight for a lecturn. I couldn't see a lamb, but there could have been one, or a lion - or both - or  if it had been a much older church, a whole host of different creatures carved in woodwork and stone, all with their special significance, from pelicans to panthers, hares to green men  (which I've also blogged about). Maybe the 'totem' in this place might be seen as a dove.

two angels from the church at Stokesay, Midlands - spot the dove
What about Spiritual guardians or Powers ? Well, there were Pre-Raphelite (I thought) paintings of beautiful humanoid beings with wonderful wings and auras of gold, communicating with people or watching over them, mediators of something beyond us ... 
What about the ancestors? Again, carvings and pictures of holy people from the stories of the Bible and the Christian tradition abound, and of course many respectful and loving memorials to the dead of the community over the years, their names all around us inviting remembrance ...
What about life itself and death? What else but the representation of a young man giving himself up to a terrible ordeal for the sake of  others ... death, as brutal as it can be, but holding a hope of something more, an empty tomb, a gleaming, empty cross, brass glowing in the candlelight.

And what about the Mother (not that I'm suggesting that the feminine is only 'divine' through materninty)? Well, to the right was a chapel with a permanent focus on the mother and child, and to the left, a banner on the other side of the church bearing the same icon and the heartening inscription of solidarity, 'Mothers' Union'. But what else about the Mother?  I cast around for more.
in a church at Bishop's Castle

As I looked about me, the red brick of the walls said 'earth baked in fire!' The pillars said 'tree trunk!' The wooden roof beams said 'tree branches!' Carvings of foliage, a vine on one of the altars, flowers surreptitiously away from display but still present (because it's Advent), a beautiful water feature at the door, the glow of many candles ... the all said 'Beautiful, elemental life in abundance!'

This interior is earth, and here we sit, being earthy, within this earthy chamber we have made to shelter us, surrounding ourselves with images of creation. Here is the Mother.
 In Hebrew, 'earth' is a feminine noun, eretz; in Greek, 'creation' is a feminine noun, ktisis, it's us, all that we are and know is of Her. So we come here, we of the Mother's body, to remind ourselves that way beyond us, earth had its awesome beginnings in the reeling infinity of the universe. We come to look beyond ourselves as well as within, to wonder, to be grateful for the sunrise, the astonishing - and continuous - way that heaven touches and warms and enlightens earth and our hearts and makes life possible. Rising Son for rising sun - for what direction is the church pointing to, with its altar and lovely coloured glass window? East, to greet the rising sun. What, indeed, are we waiting for in the time of Advent, that is not represented by the return of the sun's strength at the winter solstice, days before Christmas day? the term 'Sky Father' comes to mind. 

Sky and earth ... Shrophshire last summer
There's a quote attributed to God, in Jeremiah 23:24 - 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?'
This is no dull earth simply to be exploited and from which we should try to escape in order to attain the heavenly; it's a vibrant, amazing creation already infused with the Spirit and the Wisdom of the Divine - Great Spirit. A visually, symbolically rich church building such as the one I was sitting in proclaims this in its orientation, its architecture and ornament. God is not simply and unattainably 'up there', but here, around us - and mysteriously - within us, within the very fabric of our being ... and I haven't even bugun to touch on the mystery of the Eucharist ...  We don't have to divide up body and spirit, earthly and heavenly. God fills all, even us, even bread and wine. We don't need tiresome arguments about God's gender - God fills all, transcendent and immanent.

Somehow I feel more at peace than I have for a long time, I'm not fighting the language so much today. I can hear the words about the Father, because I can also sense the Mother all around; there is One. Yes, I'd like more acknowledgement of the Feminine Divine in Church; no, I'm not advocating nature worship, rather, nature respect, but in this place I feel that 'She' hasn't been banished. I don't feel quite so defensive on 'Her' part as I did yesterday or the day before, and interestingly, that's because I allowed myself to go exploring the places where 'She' is celebrated more directly, and came back to find Her valued in different - if unspoken - ways.
Blessed Be.

vine at Edgbaston Botanical garden

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