–Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
Dearest monks and artists,
This is one of my favorite times of year with the darkening days of autumn and the spreading color across the trees. I have long loved the wisdom of the Celtic Wheel of the Year, but living here in Ireland I experience the turning points more keenly. In the Celtic tradition, August 1st was the feast of Lughnasa and the beginning of fall and the harvest season. Here in Galway I could feel the light beginning its shift and the air grow cooler. Summer offers endless days as we are so far north, but by August 1st, the hints of autumn were already arriving.
Now we approach the cross-quarter feast of Samhain on November 1st which is the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The dark half of the year is beginning, and the nights have grown ever so long. In the ancient Celtic imagination, this was considered to be a “thin time” when the veil between heaven and earth grew more transparent and the wisdom of our ancestors was closer to us.
It is, of course, the root of our celebration of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) and All Saints and All Souls Days. In the Christian tradition, November is the month of remembrance, the time when we remember our blood and spiritual ancestors who walked this earth before us and leave us with their struggles to find meaning here. We are reassured that we are not alone, that we share the world with a great “cloud of witnesses” and “communion of saints” just across the veil.
If you have been reading here for a while, you know my love of the dark season and working with ancestral energies in my life. Both invite us into a season of mystery and unknowing, where things don’t work according to our logical expectations. My ancestors have been the impulse behind my many travels to Europe in recent years and now my grand life pilgrimage of settling here to live.
October 19th was the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. It felt like a significant milestone in my own journey, as her sudden death was a loss which wrenched me apart on many levels at the tender age of 33 when I was counting on many more years with her. I longer for her to show me what it means to mature into a woman of wisdom and a fierce sense of who I am called to be.
Certainly my own seasons of grief following her death was a profound journey of descent. Descent is the path of having everything stripped away that offered comfort. In the mystical tradition, the descent is also the slow revelation of God. And what I am living into now is a deep truth I only sensed at the time: the more I am able to give myself over to the heart-breaking truths and losses of this human life, the more I am carved out for the possibility of the deepest kind of joy.
These days, I am finding that I live more of my hours from this place of profound joy and deep trust, a place we can’t simply tell ourselves exists, but need to encounter it with our whole being. But paradoxically the encounter comes with a journey down into the heart of sorrow, of opening ourselves up to the deepest kind of vulnerability, so we might be broken open for joy – not happiness, which lacks the depth I mean. To know that the pain of feeling orphaned by the loss of my parents, and left without any siblings, has also led me to treasure community in the most dear way, to cherish the intimate friendships which sustain me. I find myself now at the heart of a vibrant and rich community of monks and artists around the world.
And I know that life will offer up more grief to me in time, and all I can do is dwell in the beauty of this moment now, its sheer possibility, its lavish generosity to me, to be alive and to know how blessed I am, to know the incredible grace.
I have been experiencing life very intensely lately, as if something in me knows how essential what is unfolding in me right now is. My word for the year is “breakthrough” and I have been feeling it all along, but something has been shifting these past few months. My dear friend and teaching partner Kayce joined me on one of my retreats in the Northwest in October and at the end as we embraced and she said “Ireland really agrees with you.” And my heart said yes and I felt tears in my eyes at the truth of it. Ireland has provided a fertile nest to help me bring things to birth. Ireland is eliciting the poetry of my soul.
I think what I am trying to say – and really what I always am trying to say – is that I am witnessing to the incredible power of allowing life to move through me in all of its messiness and complexity, to stay true to my experience and try as much as I can to follow the leading of the Spirit rather than my own plans or what I think others’ expectations of me might be. This unfolding path always has more richness than what I can contrive.
One of these sources of profound joy has been the gift of dance. Ten years ago I never would have imagined myself leading others in the gift of dance, much less be leading a community of dancing monks. I don’t look anything like a dancer, and yet I have opened myself up to the glorious freedom to be found in the dance and know it as the energy that moves the cosmos, and so now I can’t help myself and how I look matters little. And I invite others to embrace the joy and freedom of dance in all of life, whether your dance is through friendship or your work or your art.
How will you honor this time of the thinning of the veil? Will you make space to enter into the gift of holy darkness?
Is there a blood or spiritual ancestor you will remember during these November days? Is there someone you might call upon for wisdom and guidance, who might lead you into the great dance of life? Will you choose their “ongoing companionship” as Henri Nouwen invites?
I am delighted to share the image above of one of our spiritual ancestors – as Benedictine, monk, Abbess, artist, musician, herbalist, spiritual director, and more – St. Hildegard of Bingen has long been a patron saint of Abbey of the Arts is the first in a series of dancing monk icons. I love her joyfulness, her naked toes in the fresh green grass, her sense of aliveness. She was painted by the delightful artist Marcy Hall.
With great and growing love,