Monday, January 11, 2010

The Epiphany Chronicles III: The Impossible Union of Spheres of Existence

Day of January 6
The Feast of the Epiphany

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time...
Music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.  These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union.
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future 
Are conquered, and reconciled.
~T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages"

I woke the morning after my nightmare refreshed and calm, with more energy and clarity than I'd had in a few days.  My goal for the day was to get caught up on my grantwriting work and do a house blessing, a traditional ritual for Epiphany.  But when I looked around my house, I realized neither of these things were going to get done unless I cleaned first.

  What was I going to do with all this stuff?

The house was chaos, most of it worse than this table.  But I was apprehensive about starting to clean because I knew once I started, it could go on all day.  If it hadn't been for the house blessing plan, I probably would have ignored it and worked instead, but there was no way I was going to bless a dirty house.  So I took a deep breath and plunged in.  I tidied and mirted (opposite of "trimmed") the Christmas tree and put away all the decorations and washed dishes and rearranged shelves and furniture and vacuumed and swept and blogged in between tasks.

I found a perfectly intact dead bee on top of a pile of stuff in the recycling bin.  What the heck was a bee doing out here in the middle of January?  At first I thought it was alive, it was so perfect.  If you're not acquainted with my connection to bees, read this.  Most people would probably not find much significance in a dead bee, but for me it was a definite message, an alert.  The last time a dead bee came to me so clearly, I was making a three-dimensional medicine shield collage and needed something for the center of it.  I walked outside barefoot and was stung by a bee I stepped on.  But amazingly, it wasn't crushed and it ended up in the center of my shield, just where it belonged.  It was the first and only time I've ever been stung by a bee.

The first time I checked my email that morning, there was a new post announced on The Website of Unknowing, called "Dark Epiphany."  Since I was processing the nightmare, I was very curious about this.  Turns out, it tied in perfectly with my "dark epiphany" of the night before.  Carl McColman, the author of that site, says, "struggling with the absence of God is a way of experiencing God’s presence. Call it a dark epiphany, perhaps. We fool ourselves if we think that God only shows up in the light."

This also ties in nicely with the comments some folks have left on my previous two posts in these chronicles. A dark epiphany is still an epiphany to be welcomed.

Then, a little later, I read Rebecca's Epiphany post on Whatever else my life is also this dazzling darkness.  She says:
Having the aha moment or the great epiphany can be very exciting. Having all of the puzzle pieces fall into place after a long discernment or just receiving the grace of an understanding from seemingly nowhere can be a spiritual and emotional thrill. But, it seems to me that most of my epiphanies have brought with them an invitation to change and to transform. They come for my benefit and for the benefit of the world, and so I am asked to act. That action usually requires courage, integrity and discipline.
I cleaned some more, pondering all of this. During my next break, through investigating the blog of one of other commenters on "Dark Epiphany," I clicked a link called The Bee Goddess, where I read that in ancient Crete, " the bee signified the life that comes from death." Discussing a golden seal found buried with the dead in that culture, the author describes the image on it: "The bee goddess, the figure in the center descending to earth among snakes and lilies, is being worshipped by her priestesses, who, characteristically, take the same form as she does, all raising their ‘hands’ in the typical gesture of epiphany." Snakes and lilies; this spoke to me. Would it be over the top to mention that my name, Susan, means "lily?" And that lilies symbolize forgiveness and purity?

And then I remembered a small piece of what I had read in my daily prayer book, Celtic Benedictions, the night before the dream.  I went back and looked at it.  Just before going to sleep, I had prayed this with the words of the book:

Let me learn of you in the soil of my soul, O Christ,
and your journey through death to birth.
Let me learn of you in my soul this night
and the journey of letting go...

...Set free my dreams of the unknown.
Safeguard this time of resting, O God,
enfold me in the darkness of the night.

Astonishing.  My dreams of the unknown were certainly set free, just not in the way I would have chosen.  I was definitely enfolded in the darkness of the night.  I was also “safeguarded”, but again, not in a way I would expect, or normally associate with that word.  And after I went back to sleep that night, my rest was deep and whole.

This is when I got the overwhelming sense that my epiphany experiences thus far were asking to be written and shared.  It was an uncomfortable thought, and was definitely an action requiring "courage, integrity and discipline." It was becoming more and more apparent to me that there was real significance to my experiences over the past couple of days.  But what was I going to do with all this stuff? How to create the impossible union of spheres of existence?

I began to process all of it in earnest.  As outwardly I cleaned and organized my house, I inwardly ordered my mind and heart.  I mused about the meaning of Epiphany.

I've mentioned before that one of the big appeals of religion for me is entering into the narratives of my tradition, Christianity. The Epiphany narrative is of the Three Wise Men following the star and coming to see the Christ-child. I've heard that they didn't actually get there until Jesus was two and the family was living in a house, which I kind of like. I am amused by the image of Jesus as a toddler, fondling a chunk of gold and then trying to smash it on the floor, or flinging frankincense around the room with gleeful abandon.

At any rate, the rationale of the house blessing follows from this story. This ritual, which I'd been planning for days, now seemed even more important and meaningful after my experience of the previous night.

It was mid-afternoon before I got to a satisfactory stopping point with the cleaning (no, it is never "finished"), and prepared for the house blessing.  I used a ritual from the book To Dance With God, by Gertrud Mueller.  There's a little bit of liturgy to recite, and then you're supposed to go around the house with incense, or sprinkling holy water in every room while consciously blessing that space.  Then you're supposed to take a piece of chalk that you've blessed and write above the main entrances of the house, the year and the initials of the three wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) like this:

20 + C + M + B + 10

It seemed a little weird to me, this last part, but what the heck.  I didn't have a piece of chalk so I used an orange colored pencil. Very lightly.

I visited each room with a sage smudge stick a soul-friend of mine made for me and which I'd never used, and wafted the smoke with the large wild turkey feather I found last fall in the grove by the St. Francis church.  Then I carried a silver bowl of water that I keep by my bed to enhance my dreams, and sprinkled some in every room.  I finished by ringing a little bell in each room.  Maybe all of this sounds goofy to you, but it felt great.  My house felt so clean and calm and clear and fresh at the end of it all.  I was really really glad I'd spent the day this way.  And I began more and more to see that dream as a gift.

I also anointed myself with frankincense essential oil, a fitting gesture, I thought, for an Epiphany celebration.  But what struck me was that I REALLY like the way it smells.  And it's the same smell that it was 2000-odd years ago when it was offered as a gift by the wise men. Through a little research I discovered that "the mythical Phoenix bird was thought to build its funeral pyre out of frankincense and myrrh". Also, that  it was used in pagan purification ceremonies in many cultures. Purification. Yes.

Now it was time for the kids to come home, and to get ready for the Epiphany service that my church was holding that evening.

When I entered the quiet, candlelit church, the atmosphere of peace resonated with the clean quiet of my heart. My mind was not quite as clear. I was holding the big question at bay, Should I, can I, continue with Justin? The Applebees fiasco was still with me, asking me to see the reality – that despite our best intentions, we harm each other in a way that shuts us both down. And no matter how much progress we seem to make, these instances set us back to square one. I wasn't exactly fighting this recognition, but laying it aside for the moment, letting these unfolding experiences work on me and bring me the answers deeper than intellect or willful resolve.

The pastor, Wayne, was dressed in a simple white robe with a cord of rope around his waist, not what he usually wears. The service was simple and prayerful. Wayne played a song on his guitar and sang – things I had never witnessed him do. 
The scripture was from Isaiah 60:
 Arise, shine! For your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you...

I felt tears welling up and looked down at my lap, lest someone notice. And then Wayne read:

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you...
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.

I was moved to my toes. I lifted my eyes and saw quiet love. Wayne began speaking, what he spoke of was not the gifts of the wise men, or the brilliance of the star, but of Herod. For those of you not familiar with the story, when the wise men come at last into Jerusalem, they go to King Herod to inquire of the whereabouts of the “new king” that has been born. Herod, afraid of this potential threat to his authority, tells them that once they find this child, they should report back to him. Once he knows where the child is, his plan is to kill him. The Wise Men, being wise, realize the malicious intent in Herod, and return to their homeland “by a different way,” to avoid Herod.

Something that has struck me since that night is that the Wise Men were strangers to the land, aliens, and must have seemed especially so when they showed up at Mary and Joseph's doorstep. But they were welcomed, just as I must welcome the strangers in my own soul.

What Wayne preached about was Herod's fear, how everything he is reported in the Bible to have done was out of fear. How even in the joy of the nativity story, there is the backdrop of shadows and death. How we all live against this backdrop. Darkness creates fear in the human heart, he said, using the example of a child wanting to leave the lights on at night because the monsters grow larger in the dark. But, he said, fear also creates darkness, it works the other way too. And yet, there is this glorious light beyond all light, that is real, and all we have to do is find the courage to lift our eyes to behold it. All we have to do is trust it, and then there it is. 

And there it was. 
And here it is.

No simple answers, only “hints followed by guesses,” but in the weeping, in the lifting of eyes, the impossible union beheld.


  1. You "mirted" the tree? Ha! What a great word!

    Almost spooky, the way all that bee, lily, and snake imagery and mythos come together to form a significant meaning for you and your happenstance. That doesn't happen too often, but when it does...well, it's impossible not to sit up, take notice, and look for a deeper meaning.

    I love your detailed description of the house-blessing, including the Southwestern flavor (orange pencil and turkey feathers). Absolutely entrancing language, and yet so simple and straightforward. I'll be honest. It does sound a bit goofy. But what is life but a bunch of people doing goofy things, trying to make everything all right?

    "Moved to my toes." I don't think I've ever felt that way. I can almost feel it, though, the way you describe it. Your depth of expression never ceases to amaze and delight. I'm ever so glad that the nightmare turned into a blessing, and you realized the Epiphany to such an extent.

    I do realize the simplest and yet grandest of joys which you speak of, the impossible union beheld, when people really and truly come together. Quiet love.

    There's nothing else like it.

    Immaculately beautiful writing, and a torturous, dramatic, yet triumphant story. I feel at once fascinated, heartened, and privileged to witness it, even in this secondhand sort of way. Well done. Bravo for your courage and integrity in sharing it.

    And yes, cleaning CAN be "finished."

  2. Thank you, Postie.

    Maybe cleaning can be finished in your house, but not in mine.

    We are all goofy, aren't we? Just different kinds of goofiness depending on the stories we live our lives by.

  3. This was beautiful. I love how you tied all the elements together -- the physical and the spiritual, the words (the poetry) and the action, the light and the dark. Feeling lost and confused and the epiphany. Very lovely and moving. I especially like the scripture. I no longer practice Christianity, but there are some elements I love, and those lines reflect the best of the religion -- inspiring hope and confidence and love.

    Also -- I am going to try the frankincense. I love using essential oils, not in a cleansing ritual (though I rather liked your description of it) but as aromatherapy and just to make the house smell good. It IS cleansing, even without the ritual. I received a beautiful small clay essential oil holder for Christmas from which the aroma is gently released through the porous clay. I may have to get some frankincense for it.

    Thank you for another thoughtful post. It's a pleasure to read your essays.

  4. Thank you! It's difficult to know when I'm writing about being moved if that's actually going to be conveyed to the reader. I'm glad it worked for you.

    Isaiah rocks - such a poet.

    I'm a bit envious of your clay holder. Essential oils and related paraphernalia is my absolute favorite stuff to get as gifts. I've seriously considered starting a cottage industry of making stuff with essential oils.

  5. Wow, I really like the way you do Christianity. Oh yes. I do a very similar house-blessing ritual when I move into a new place. I like the idea of doing it at Epiphany. And what a beautiful piece of writing. I must visit that Bee Goddess site again. It's been on my blogroll for a while and I have a bit of a thing about bees too. In fact, weirdly, someone emailed me to ask about bees the other day. Synchronicity!

  6. Thank you!

    I have been consistently blown away by the level of synchronicity in the blogosphere.

    I am definitely committed to the path of Christianity, but have experience with and respect for other traditions as well. What really creams my twinkie is interfaith dialogue.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Oh my. Tears. Reading your post, I've had a further realization. I really am lost.

    I moved to North Georgia three months ago from Southern California. While it was my choice, I deeply miss SoCal. I sold and gave away all my belongings and moved here for love. A love that hasn't worked out.

    Recently, I realized that I've been so mired in sadness, depression, regret and self-pity, that I'm missing the beauty and the gifts. (Plus, creating more more of the darkness.)

    I am in the heart of the bible belt, there is literally a church (98% Christian) on every corner. Yet I resist, having not 'practiced' or been to church (other than for AA meetings) in years. Reading your post made me yearn for that connection.

    I know that I am here for reasons that have nothing to do with the guy love that brought me here. I'm now writing a novel that's set in NoGA. I'm seeing the rebirth of nature in a way I've not witnessed for eleven years (I'm originally from the Atlanta area). I've reconnected with AA in my 19th year of recovery. And, I'm reaching out for help.

    I've been humbled to the point of surrender in so many ways, while being given gifts I can barely fathom.

    I have thrown myself in to blogging, reading other people's, meeting new friends in the blogosphere and on Facebook and in my new community in NoGA. I'm slowly getting in to service and out of my self.

    Thank you for sharing your process in your blog. I've only just found you and reading you is such a help. I've been so caught up in me, me, me for so long. Maybe letting go of ME is what it's all about.

    Don't know if I'm making any sense. But, thank you, Susan, from the bottom of my heart.

  8. Rebel, you sound so much like me! I have done exactly the same thing. When I first moved to New Mexico, it was with a new love, that ended about three weeks later. After he was gone, I was left sitting in the wreckage of my life, and for the first time, really LOOKING at what I had made of my life and realizing what a mess it was. That was when I began reading the Bible and going to church.

    I started reading the gospel of John. I was desperately looking for rules and structure to my life, something to "set me straight," but what I found instead was the real Presence of Christ and an experience of overflowing love and forgiveness that left me weeping with gratitude night after night for weeks. I felt utterly cleansed. Whole. I was definitely "set straight," not through rules but through surrender to a great and real and all-encompassing love that made me soft to everything. Everything looked and sounded clearer.

    Thank you for reminding me of this. I'm glad you found me, and I look forward to journeying with you. It sounds like you are in a richly transformative time.

    And I think you're right - "letting go of ME is what it's all about." Letting go of little me so I can find my Self - This is exactly what I'm focused on right now.

  9. AH, a kindred spirit. One who has been through the fire and lived to tell the tale. As of course we always do. Did you go back to a church of your own faith, or end up in another? Just curious.

    And, thank you!

  10. I grew up Anglican in Canada. When I began attending in New Mexico, I joined a Presbyterian church. Nowadays, I'm not a member of any church, and I was attending a Presbyterian one here in Taos, but lately I've been moving away from church involvement. You know never know where life will lead.



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