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Monk in the World Guest Post: Patricia Brenneman

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Patricia Brenneman’s reflection “Surrender to the Mother Vessel.”

As a monk in the world, I pay close attention to image – images that emerge in meditation, in dreams, in real life, perhaps as a creature that unexpectedly crosses my path. Image is the language of the soul, expressing something which resides in our very depths and which calls for holy attention. I yearn to explore and embody life “mythically”, as Sharon Blackie describes – to feel that connection to ” . . . a multi-layered life, rooted and grounded and gritty, yet rich with image and symbol.”*   I offer the following essay, written in a time of great transition, about my process of inquiry into a particular image that showed up as a mysterious phrase in all of its richness and resonance:

2015 was a year of discernment for me. I felt called to deepen my work in the spiritual realm, both personally and professionally, and faced decisions about training and travel and all of the energy and expense that comes with that territory. In the midst of this, I discovered that my spiritual director of the previous 12 years was, at age 80, moving into retirement. Cil was not only my spiritual guide but also my spiritual mother, guiding me through my own mother wounds, the death of my mother, and my journey of integration/individuation. In facing this loss, I was launched into deep grief amidst my joy and excitement about the next phase of my journey.  As I lived into my joy and grief and excitement and decision making about programs and spiritual directors, I witnessed my body’s expression of all of this- the rhythms of full-bodied exuberant “yes!”, the tightening and resistance of fear, the heartbreaking sadness in my heart and gut. Somewhere in all of this, I consulted with the Tarot cards, asking what I most needed to pay attention to. Embedded in the reading was this: Surrender to the Mother Vessel.

I am haunted by this phrase. Surrender to the Mother Vessel. Mother Vessel – just what is this? Mother Vessel. It rolls around in my mouth, like the smooth pebble from ocean’s shore, salty and worn to its essence. It steeps in my tea each morning, and I pluck it out before it becomes too bitter, seeking just that enoughness of flavoring. I wrestle with it, as did Jacob with the angel, hoping for a wound visible enough so I can see its impact. I play with it, make art with it, meditate on it, dream it.  I am entranced, enthralled by it. This is all about devotion, actually.

Devotion. Hunger, and thirst.

My own original experience of the Mother Vessel involved something very sad, empty and lonely. Through therapy and my work with Cil, I sense a container within that is more firm, more whole, more resilient in its holding and receptive capacity. Yet facing this loss of Cil triggered a new level of free fall into the original loss of Mother in her inability to give me the holding and containment I needed – a remembering this in my body – and a realization of my childlike externalization of Cil as my Mother Vessel. I was suddenly terrified. How could I do this without her? Who do I think I am, to aspire to move into Cil’s shoes as spiritual guide to others? To take on this role meant direct displacement of Cil in my life. I felt caught- something that I had been moving toward in joy was now fraught with loss.

There is paradox here. Destruction and creation, death and life. I sense the presence of Kali, “gentle mother, fierce warrior”, goddess of creation and destruction, Great Mother, that “dangerously dual figure, both benevolent and terrifying.” This is about birth mother, about Mother, about Great Mother. About devotion – devotion to my mother in all of her aspects, devotion to Cil’s leaving, and ultimately, devotion to my Self, in all of my aspects.

A man, in a documentary I watched recently, describes sitting with his mother as she is dying. He watches her slow breathing, and is struck by how the curves of her pelvis and ribs are much like those of a ship, very much like the wooden canoe he had made himself, the very vessel from which he fishes for fish to eat. Mother Vessel, vessel out of which we are born and then launched, within our own vessel, within this vessel of earth, of universe, of Great Mother. Birth and death, our womb experience. How our very living involves causing death and destruction.

There is paradox in this darkness, and there is stillness, silence, waiting. Being present in what is, receptive to what shows up, ready to surrender. Surrender to the Mother Vessel.

Surrender. Floating on my back in water feels like surrender. I do this regularly as part of my lap swim in the pool, loose and aligned within that liminal place of water and air, “…float[ing] into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace” (Denise Levertov).  Recently I got to float in ocean water, lifted and raised by salty wave motion, circled by sky, open and expansive. Heart open, exposed and lifted- this is both sweetly vulnerable and terrifyingly tender.

My dreams manifest the image of a white, milky substance, something I’ve come to think of as mother’s milk. In the first dream, around the time of the Tarot reading, the milky substance comes up from a tube that is inserted into the depths of the pelvis. The appearance of the substance means that the tube is properly inserted, in the right position. I observe the older expert surgeon, and as he steps aside, I move into his place and, following his example, ease the tube into place correctly. More recently, in another dream, the milky substance appears in a glass of my client’s medicine, medicine for his Crohn’s (crones), which I drink from and receive, holy medicinal mother’s milk. My hunger and thirst are satisfied, for now.

Devotion indeed.


*From Earthlines magazine, Issue 16, November 2016.

Patricia Brenneman dreams, writes, reads, and walks her dog Gracie in Minneapolis.  She offers Sweet Nectar for the Grieving Soul: A Pilgrimage into Grief and Loss groups, using sandplay to explore grief as sacred territory, and practices spiritual guidance in the Jungian tradition. She can be reached through




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