I start most days by greeting Leo and Serenity, two beautiful cats that share their lives and loves with me, and together we step out into the early morning garden to meet the community of life that we are part of. There are prayers of blessing to be silently offered over the mint and lemon balm, now that spring has returned and there are fresh leaves for morning tea again. Serenity likes to join me, as I light a candle before the icons on my altar and then settle down to drink tea and chant my Morning Office. Or if it’s warm, we sit out on the deck beside the wild patch and my prayers are woven through with birdsong.
Like many Christians in the spiritual community throughout the world that we call the holy mother church, I work with the ‘First English Prayer Book’, which was written by a mostly anonymous group in 1549 (probably solely composed of men but who knows?) and which draws upon prayers and scripture that root back into several millennia of Christian and Jewish tradition. I have consciously chosen to work with tradition and yet I also feel free to innovate and re-create it day by day, to reflect my experience as a woman. So I change the words somewhat and make up my own tunes. I use my imagination and intuition. I use movement and gesture, scents and sensing and I dig deep into stories to restore and reclaim the women and the more than human beings who are present there. I feel strongly about this. I meet many people who are highly critical and rejecting of Christian tradition, as I once was (and still sometimes am) and yet these days I mostly feel that it’s no longer good enough for me personally to turn away from the tradition I was born into, without looking more closely and making a little more effort. Also I feel a heart response, a response-ability to all the women who have walked the Christian way, whether silenced, overlooked or not, to honour their journey, their wisdom and inspiration.
So I began this morning, as I often do, by changing the word “Lord’ while still keeping the poetry of traditional devotional language:
Beloved open thou my lips
and my mouth shall show forth thy praise
Holy Mother make speed to save us
Our Lady make haste to help us
As I slowly chant, I feel my heart unfurl and that the wonder of life truly is something to delight in and to praise. I think of all that is being hurt and destroyed and that I long to be saved on the good earth and I choose to trust that there is some greater mystery at play that holds my yearning for healing and transformation. As the traditional service continues to unfold, the earth and all angels are acknowledged as sharing in the great outpouring of praise and celebration of the divine source, ‘heaven and earth are full of thy glory’. When I imagine heaven, I draw upon my Celtic ancestry and the indigenous forms of Christian expression that flourished after the Romans left Britain in the fifth century. I imagine the ‘Otherworld’, a heaven of subtle senses and presences that are woven in together with embodied sense and earthy beings. Today the glorious reality of heaven and earth is angelic orange tip butterflies flitting among the fresh green of spring nettles.
Crossing the thresholds of worlds continues as the service moves on to remember Apostles (I think of Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, Thecla and others), Prophets (I imagine Miriam, Deborah and more), the communion of Saints (I picture Theresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, Mother Julian or my more recent heroines such as Annie Dillard, Adrienne Rich…) I feel myself surrounded by a great cloud of women witnesses over countless generations. My Trinity is of a Mother God, her Son and the Holy Spirit, named in Hebrew Bat Kol – daughter of the voice.
Next comes scripture reading – met in sacred silence and explored through the imagination. A recent reading spoke of Sophia – divine wisdom:
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand.
My way of sacred reading, whether of the ’small book’ of the Bible or the ‘big book’ of nature is inspired by a traditional method developed by Francis de Sales in the sixteenth century, who invites engaging through meditation with the head and the heart, imaginatively entering into the ‘story’ and then distilling from our thoughts and feelings a simple intention and embodied action that we can carry into the day. So I am struck in the passage above by the potential to meet wisdom ‘along the way’, that any encounter ‘where paths meet’ may contain a wisdom teaching. So I re-dedicate myself today to trying to be more present and receptive to those moments of encounter with the human or more than human world and whether easy or difficult. Perhaps in this writing there may be a moment of encounter with you, dear reader?
My Morning Office with Holy Mother God ends in prayer that reaches out into the world. It’s as if the energy of the early parts of the service, from the devotional praise, celebration and the inspiration of sacred reading, is then offered back to the world. I pray for all the beings who share this space I call home, for neighbours and neighbourhoods, for a widening circle of life in all its beauties and horrors. I finish with my slightly adapted versions of the ‘Collects’ (prayers in which we collect our heart and mind and recollect what matters most) for peace and grace. These help to root me into a deeper place of trust as I move into another full working day and to remind me of the reason I am dedicated to Christian leadership and ministry – to love and serve life.
Holy Mother, who art author of peace, and lover of concord
in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom:
defend us, thy humble servants, from making the other our enemy,
that we surely trusting in thee, may not fear the power of any adversity.
All loving and ever living God, which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day:
defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we do fall into forgetfulness
but that all beings may be held with love and wisdom
and we may do what is right, whole and holy in thy sight.
by Samantha Wernham.
For more about women and the sacred feminine in the Jewish and Christian traditions, you might like to dip into:
The Book of ‘Proverbs’ in the Bible, especially Chapter 9
‘The Hebrew Goddess’ by Raphael Patai
’She Who Is’ by Elizabeth A. Johnson
‘Band of Angels – The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women’ by Kate Cooper
‘Goddess and God in the World – Conversations in Embodied Theology’ by Carol. P Christ and Judith Plaskow
anything by Mirabai Starr
For art & icons by Dr. Mary Plaster, see http://www.maryplaster.com/
Join Samantha Wernham at our next event on Friday May 4 at 6.30pm, The Feminine and Spiritual Authority: Christian, Buddhist and Muslim Perspectives! Samantha will be joined by Remona Aly and Sahajatara Blake for an interfaith panel discussion. Book tickets here!
Sam Wernham is the founder of social enterprise Living Spirit, which has offered many projects celebrating spirit, art and nature over the last twenty years. Current projects include Wild Church, which is an inter-spiritual pioneer ministry committed to silent pilgrimage and contemplative communion. Wild Church is currently working on the development of a new monastic centre and ‘sacramental landscape’ in Dartington, Devon.
Sam has travelled widely and been a life long student of spiritual ecology, ranging from the Buddhist communities of Ladakh and Zanskar to the Celtic churches of the Scottish Highlands, where she worked a croft for five years and built an eco retreat centre. She nows lives on pilgrimage between her micro monastery in Dartington and Christ Church University in Canterbury, where she is engaged in doctoral research into transformative learning focussed on the motif of the sacred marriage. As an ordained interfaith minister and committed Anglican, Sam is especially curious about the marriage of tradition and innovation. http://www.living-spirit.co.uk/.