Planning a retreat begins, not with brainstorming, but with a holy surprise. I have retreat dates scheduled years in advance including every Advent, but a theme unfolds only when the timing is just right. Usually, six months to a year before the retreat dates, I send out a signal to the Divine that I’m looking for an idea. In my spiritual reading, combined with following a variety of spiritual writers, religious leaders, poets, and musicians on social media, I look for synchronicities…sort of like “retreat radar.” It could be a profound quotation, an image, lyrics from a song, a blessing, or a prayer that grabs me—that’s when the ideas begin to flow, a pattern develops, a theme is revealed, and a retreat begins to take shape.
Several months before the 2022 Advent retreat, I spent more time than usual with my SoulCollage® cards—photographing and uploading each to a SoulCollage® app, considering archetypal energies that were expressed, contemplating the time of life the card was created, and how the meaning may have changed. I realized I had dozens of cards with images of Mary, or feminine and mothering energy, in them. Over the years, I read several books about the many sightings of Mary and sacred pilgrimages to Marian shrines, and my curiosity grew. Realizing the impact Mary had on so many of my cards, I felt the tug to take a deeper dive into what Mary might reveal in my spiritual journey. Time to read those books on my shelf that I hadn’t quite gotten to and, confession, I purchased several new books. I made Mary an all-out research project.
The book that initially inspired the Advent retreat “Pregnant with the Holy: Exploring Your Inner Mary” is Birthing the Holy: Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal by Christine Valters Painter, one of my favorite spiritual writers and abbess of the online Benedictine community, Abbey of the Arts. Each chapter focuses on a title given to Mary, providing the reader with a window into qualities we can call upon in ourselves. I chose to focus on several names for Mary including Queen, Mother, Virgin, Chosen, Theotokos, and Untier of Knots as well as the Annunciation, Mary’s response to a holy invitation, using poetry, music, art, icons, various articles, and excerpts from my reading.
I trust the synchronicities that birth a retreat and look forward to what unfolds for those attending. I stand witness to creative juices flowing, new insights revealed, and sacred connections made, but I was surprised to personally experience a compassionate and divine embrace during our Saturday afternoon session. After sharing my card Sacred Mother: Our Lady of Guadalupe, we moved into a music meditation.
The lyrics of the first song “In a Circle of Women” by Jan Phillips:
In a circle of women, I am (You are/We are) born again. In a circle of women, I am (You are/We are) home. Heal me now. Together we heal each other. In a circle of women, I am (You are/We are) home.
(An aside: The image from the slide show above has different lyrics because I heard “whole” instead of “home.” Later I realized my mistake. Did I hear what I wanted to hear? Indeed, I embrace the meaning of both words!)
But it was during the lyrics of the second song “Welcome to this Circle” by Trish Bruxvoort Colligan that I connected to the child in the straw hat from my SoulCollage® card:
Welcome to this circle
where love and grace abound
We honor your journey
and wherever you are bound
We will walk beside you
Encourage you on your way
Celebrate your spirit
and hold you as we pray
There is love for one like you
There is grace enough to see you through
and wherever you have walked,
whatever path you choose,
May you know
there is love for one
I had not consciously chosen this card for the music meditation, but looking at the little girl in the straw hat touched my soul. I felt the lyrics were intended for her, evoking memories and feelings long ago suppressed. I felt simultaneously the pain of a childhood wound and the blessing of self-acceptance. The song was for me, then and now. Fighting back tears, I was compelled to share the story I had never written about or spoken to another.
When I was a child, my grandma bought three portraits as souvenirs from her travels to give to her three granddaughters. Two were colorful images of a young girl surrounded by flowers called A Girl with a Watering Can (Auguste Renoir, 1876) and the third was A Child in a Straw Hat (Mary Cassat, 1886), a little girl who looked a bit sad and lonely, dressed in muted colors, a melancholy expression on her face. The images could not have been more different. I can’t remember how or why, but I ended up with the melancholy girl. For years, this portrait hung in my childhood bedroom, and I was reminded daily of my disappointment and, eventually, curiosity.
She made me wonder. For years, I reflected on her serious expression and why she touched me so deeply. She seemed sad, lonely, misunderstood, perhaps taken deeply by her own thoughts. I imagined she felt different, excluded, plain, not like the colorful little girl in the other portrait. I connected with this child in a straw hat, my childhood self who was longing for assurance, love, and acceptance. As I was sharing my innermost childhood sadness and uncertainty with these women, I realized the lyrics were words I longed to hear when I was a child.
I have this same portrait hanging in my grown-up house now, some 50 years later. I feel differently about her expression now. I am comfortable with my differences, melancholy, and serious thoughts. I don’t wonder about her feelings anymore but accept that she just feels her own way. I accept her as part of myself now; I no longer envy the girls in the flower garden. Most importantly, I am at home in myself, but I have also found others who accept, even appreciate, who I am. I felt both my own self-acceptance and that of others. I was overwhelmed with grace, knowing Mary had a hand in my healing.
“In everyone’s life, there is a great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home.”John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
The little girl in the straw hat has evolved, she has grown into her queendom. There is a holy seat, not a patriarchal or hierarchal throne, but a comfortable seat—my crown, a symbol of sovereignty and wholeness, is there for the taking. This little girl, now a woman, found a home (or wholeness) within herself. And it is a blessing to have my authentic, whole self be accepted into a circle of women. It isn’t something earned but freely given. It is a grace. The journey was my own, but I am accompanied.
What I bring to the table, the circle, the world is enough. Different, yet good.
“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to… We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful…We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”Alice Walker – The Color Purple, 1982
I am one who is welcome to this circle—I am accepted, and I am loved no matter what. I do not need affirmation from others, but it is a grace to be understood by some. My stories are heard and honored. I am accompanied by others who walk a spiritual journey with me.
There is love for one like me—Yes, me who may be different, who may get sad, who wears her emotions on her sleeve, who can be a contradiction, but is still loved. I am celebrated for who I am. I celebrate the child within and who I have become. My light shines whether wearing a straw hat or a crown. I am whole. I am home within myself. I am both Wounded Child and the Queen.
My Mary research project is far from over, but already she has revealed more than I could have imagined about what it means to claim the title “Queen,” to be home in myself, to fully claim my story. I am grateful to the women who embraced me with grace and love on the journey, who are comfortable with the authentic and have no need for masks. May Mary continue to speak truth in our lives. May we continue to “Praise one another’s beauty and wisdom and build fires to keep one another warm.”-Mirabai Starr
Coming home to this me that is now in all her glory
Coming home, Coming home
I will be the first to fully claim my story
I will be the first to call this journey holy
I will greet me at the door with arms wide open
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