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Welcome to Soundings! The blogsite of Caitlín Matthews.

Exploring Myth, Divination and the Western Mysteries.

All blogs are copyright Caitlín Matthews.
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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

RESTORING OUR SACRED IMAGES TO THE WORLD

‘Behind your hand there must be present thousands of powers that move it. These mysterious things that are inside us and which want to find expression are not all ours but also of those who preceded us and transmitted them to us. This is called tradition.’ - Philip Kontoglou, iconographer


Earlier this Spring, I logged onto Facebook, to be confronted with a plethora of images of the Goddess of Spring, in the context of people wishing each other a Happy Equinox. One image in particular made me fall back in amazement: a hyper-real glamour-puss with a décolletage down to her navel, and a lascivious expression that suggested she might have fallen out of a pornographic magazine rather than any earth tradition.  Is this really how people perceive and understand their divinities, I wondered? Bad religious art is bad in all denominations, of course: super-sweet Madonnas, pallid-looking Saviours, or cutesy Ganeshas can be equally alienating!  And while some things are a matter of personal taste and aesthetics, the depiction of sacred beings as floozies or brainless he-men is insulting to the divinity in question, and hardly the kind of thing we would want our children to be inspired by. 

Arthur by Will Worthington, from The Camelot Oracle by John Matthew
Every culture and time has its own art, and nothing so dates an era as cultural imagination, but where is the sacred art of our time? We are blessed to have many fine artists like Will Worthington, and Wil Kinghan, who have opened windows into the ancient Celtic world, as well as many other painters and craftspeople whose vision does them credit. But, on the other hand, there are also many more images like those of the unfortunate equinoctial being I mentioned above, as well as air-brushed images of what appear to me to be human people, not spiritual beings or divinities at all – they look like people you could meet at the car-boot or in the supermarket, and I am sorry, but they don’t inspire me or make me feel I am being powerfully upheld. Over the last few years, this change in how we depict sacred images has begun to more than bother me. Where are the images that depict the timeless acts of our sacred imagination?

Now, everyone of us meditates, or stands in the sacred land, communing with the powers that be, and we experience something very different from bad-taste art: I know this, not only from personal experience, but from the relations of students and readers who share their perceptions and understandings with me. I know it distresses devotees that they cannot find the image or statue of the beings that they venerate, or that they have to make do with pictures that are not worthy of those divinities. I began to ask myself, how can we restore the sacred images to our world? 

Of course, the pre-Christian world had many beautiful images, whose destruction ensured that many ancient, ancestral visions of the sacred were lost to us. Such iconoclasm is still going on in our world, as we see from the destruction of many historic sites, like Palmyra, which Daesh smashed to rubble: the loss of artefacts, images and sacred sites is not just a loss of beauty, it is loss of ancestral heritage and cultural inspiration. The sacred images of pagan traditions in a present era have largely yet to emerge.

Restoring these images, from the heart of our imagination seems to me a sacred task that is laid upon us at this time. Bringing the images of our divinities, heroes, and holy ancestors back into the world for ourselves and our community enables the iconic moments of our beliefs and the sacred myths to be manifest once again, to continually inspire us. But it is not just a matter of reproducing ancient artefacts or copying sacred images: it is about finding them in our own vision.

Merlin and the Dragons, icon
In the light these thoughts, over the last few years, I have begun to learn the technique of painting icons in egg-tempera, where earth and mineral pigments are mixed with egg yolk to making a painting emulsion with the addition of water and wine – a medium that preserves down the centuries. Icons are not illustrations, but rather windows into the otherworld. We don’t invent icons: they arise from the genuine visions and interactions that we have already had with the divine beings of our devotion; we have already observed them with the eyes of the heart. Now, while I had a good art education, I would not regard myself to be any kind of great artist, but I am a good prayer! Bringing sacred images into being on a gessoed board, requires meditation, prayer and a deep communion with the being in question. 

An icon is made up of many layers. We paint from the darkness to the light, much as we first approach a sacred being in the very beginning: at first, we do not see the likeness of our devotion clearly – their features are not known to us. We begin with a sense of presence and companionship, or awe or mystery. As we continue to meditate and the divinity or ancestor comes closer to us, our perception begins to clarify. Even so, we start over again every day, moving from the darkness of unknowing, through many different shades of colour, into the clear light of their presence. 

Sketch for Maiden of the Wells C. Matthews
Maiden of the Wells icon, C. Matthews

  
















If you are familiar with Orthodox icons, which kept alive the Eastern Mediterranean skill of egg-tempera, you will be aware that they look different from other kinds of depictions. Icons use inverse perspective: rather than the Renaissance ‘vanishing point,’ whereby all the lines of perspective are aligned and widen out to our view, something else seems to be happening -  the perspective lines rather converge on the viewer because the subject looks out at us.In effect, the icon ‘comes to us,’ which is, of course, how our perception of the sacred being happens. The divinity, hero, spirit or ancestor, already witnesses us,and this is why we feel their warmth and love that drew us to the being in the first place. These images are never sappy nor sentimental, but powerful: they appear on their own terms, not ours.
St Michael, in progress, showing the underpainting
C. Matthews

In an icon, we capture the essence of timelessness, making it possible for us to experience the prototype of a being or sacred happening, so that we may witness it. This was well described by the philosopher Sallustius, the amanuensis of the Emperor Julian, who attempted to restore Pagan belief to a Christianising world, who said: ‘Myth is something that has never happened, but is happening all the time.’  For example, we experience the loss and finding of Mabon, son of Modron, not as an historic event that once happened, but as a loss that lays us waste, and also as a finding that reunites our fragmentation: it affects us now, in this very moment. We experience the Goddess of the Earth not only as bountiful mother, but also we are aware of her in every devastation and loss that our physical world suffers. We are thirsty for the wisdom that never dies, and we seek the action of the Grail or Cauldron that irrigates our dryness, and heals our wounds.

The Way Shower by Wil Kinghan, from
Celtic Wisdom Oracle by C. Matthews
The Brehon by Wil Kinghan, from
CelticWisdom Oracle by C. Matthews



















Restoring the sacred images to our world ensures that they are present to tell us that we are not alone. When we go in and out, when we eat or rest, when we celebrate or mourn, the sacred images are present in our world, as well as in the otherworld, enabling the sublime to be present among us, as an embodiment that inspires us every day. I, for one, would be most interested to see the emergence of images that worthily uphold our spirituality, and inspire generations to come. 


Caitlín Matthews & Felicity Wombwell are leading Images of the Heart: Painting our Sacred Images, an icon painting course, open to people of all backgrounds. No artistic ability is required, but there are some preparatory steps before you come. Held on 24-27 August 2018 at Hawkwood College. See: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/spirituality/icons-of-the-heart-painting-our-sacred-images---caitlin-matthews-and-felicity-wombwell



Friday, 23 March 2018

DRAWING WATER FROM THE DEEP WELL: The Art of Natural Prayer

Over the last thirty years, I've invited all my shamanic students to include prayer in their lives, regardless of whatever tradition they follow. Why do I feel this important? When we learn about spiritual healing, of course we cannot be of service unless we are first spiritually connected, any more than an electrical appliance can give light or heat unless it is first plugged in. This necessary component of Spirit cannot be left out, or our learning becomes merely theoretical or just techniques. Wherever I go in the world, whatever the audience, whatever the topic, this is largely what I am teaching. But, whether we are healers, or business people, whether we are active, retired, ill, in transit, we all need prayerful connection with Spirit. Unless we draw water from the deep well, our steps cannot be surely guided, for our lives are not lived only the world that we see, but they are also part of the world that we know from our visions, dreams, and meditations.

Island of the Crystal Keep by Danuta Meyer,
from Celtic Book of the Dead.
We live in an era of spiritual nomadism where, between the extremes of an over-certain fundamentalism and the often-mysterious mysticism of established religions, there dwell many people who would regard themselves as people of spirit, who try to live ethically and responsibly, but who do not fit within a fixed faith tradition. It is with these people of spirit that I have most to do: they are the people between, the spiritually marginalized, the ones whose hearts beat passionately for the state of the world, and who want to be spiritually and morally responsive to All That Is.  They are not counted as part of anything, they may not be gathered into specific groups, but I witness them every day. They perceive Spirit in individual ways, under different shapes and by other names, and they are many. So when people write about our age being ‘post-religious’ they may not be giving us the whole picture: I would say that we may be post-denominational, but not that we are without a sense of the sacred, whether we see that as supreme being, an intelligence, or as a matrix of  divinities or spirits.

There is a common impression abroad that prayer belongs just to professional religious people, but it doesn't - it belongs to us all, not just to the religions and faiths to which you may or may not subscribe.  It is part of the dialogue which we have with the universe, and how the unseen life of the universe reveals itself to our soul. Prayer is as much for you and all those who, through default, alienation or exclusion, find themselves outside the holy sanctuaries.  Prayer arises in us all.

For all who wish to begin a personal spiritual practice that helps them keep connection with the Sacred Source of Life, and for those who want to engage with the prayer life of the whole universe in ways that are natural to them, the first steps into that world of prayer are often clogged with problematic baggage.  If you have moved out of the faith of your upbringing, or recently vacated a religion that did not offer you spiritual hospitality or help at the time you most needed support, you may have the bitterness of the rejected, where anything smacking of that faith may feel like enemy territory. If the holy images and devotions of your past evoke fear, guilt or distain in you, then these will probably not be your best hand-holds for the way forward.

Conversely, if you have never actually accumulated any of that religious baggage, because you had no such background or upbringing, it can be just as daunting. You may have no notion of how to get started, or your own developing sense of the sacred dimension may not feel strong enough to stand on its own legs yet. The validations that only long experience brings are not yet in your possession, and you are like a scout over unknown terrain. In which case, you are in good company, because everyone who starts down the path of prayer eventually makes their own discoveries, unknowing that we are on the road with others.

Seabirds Steps, Bay of Skail
This is beautifully illustrated by Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film, Fanny and Alexander, where the eponymous brother and sister are rescued from the wreck of their mother’s second disastrous marriage by a family friend, the Jewish Uncle Isak. As they settle down to their first night’s sleep of safety in many months, Isak reads aloud the story of a youth who is upon a journey: he no longer remembers where it started, nor is he sure where he is going. The way is hot and unrelieved. In his exhaustion, he cannot notice the trees, nor can he hear the waters. He falls in with an old man who, like him is walking the same way. He tells the youth the pilgrims’ cries, hopes, and dreams condense into a great cloud, becoming the springs at which travellers can quench their thirst and wash their burning faces and blistered feet. 

The story Isak tells is a parable, similar to the gnostic story of the Hymn of the Pearl, from the Acts of Thomas, whereby a royal youth goes out into the world, becomes forgetful of his priceless inheritance of spiritual wisdom, and wanders in a sorry state until reminded of it once again and brought home to his family. The water that potentially irrigates the weary youth in Isak’s story is blent of the hopes, dreams and cries of other pilgrims who have been along the same route before him. We do not travel alone, and the hopes and visions of others make water for us along the way.

The paths to our natural spiritual way lie all around us: when we follow these hints and clues, they open out into a whole landscape. Trusting your own personal communion with nature and spirit can become the basis for the most powerful and transformative experience.

Wherever you stand on your path, prayer arises naturally in everyone, is bound to no specific theology, but it is open to all people of spirit, regardless of whether they follow a chosen path or whether they are pilgrims seeking on the road. Prayer is not just words and asking; prayer is a state of being into which we enter. It can entail our behaviour and attitude, our thoughts, our actions, our stillness, our struggle to cope after sorrow, and the kinds of connections we have with the universe.



Stained Glass, Lincoln Cathedral
The received sense of prayer is that is about asking for things. In every place and time-zone of the world throughout history, people have prayed. From a place of need, they have turned to what is resourceful; from a place of smallness and dark uncertainty, they have applied themselves to what is bigger and brighter than their need, just as in my favourite written prayer, from the children’s novel The Box of Delights by the  poet-laureate, John Masefield:

O Greatness, Hear!
O, Brightness, Hark!
Leave us not little,
Nor yet little, nor yet dark!

However, we don’t only ‘pray to,’ but we also ‘pray from, with and for,’ which resets the parameters of prayer. We can pray from a place of strength and witness, we may pray with those who hold the same vision, and we always pray for those times, places and beings undergoing suffering, in compassionate solidarity. But prayer is not only oral. Through silence, singing, movement, stillness, meditation, and the mediation of blessing, everyone can find their own way of welcome.

As one of my teachers, Daan van Kampenhout observes, ‘Prayer never weakens you.’  It is not pleading, bargaining, nor black magic. By stepping first into communion with these sacred sources of love and help that gladden your own heart, by seeking out spiritual connection before anything else, our prayer goes freely where it needs to go, unconditionally, unshaped and undefined, to land where it most needs to be received.  Like a stone that is thrown into a pool, the ripples of prayer ray out until they reach the sides of the pool, upon which, they come rippling back.

People have always gone apart to pray, many have gone out into nature, not to feel holy, but  to address those things that are beyond our ability to manage: to find inspiration, help, guidance and a sense of being companioned. Prayer is also wound into our lives and their daily concerns. Long periods of prayer are not about many words but about what happens in our communion with Spirit, however we understand that.

Prayer is the loom where we are woven, where we can reweave what has been broken, where we weave in what matters.  Our prayer contributes to the greater weaving of the universe and nothing can remove us from its inclusion: it is a weaving that covers all of us. Prayer is the natural heritage of everyone: it belongs to you, whereby our lives might be a blessing.

Caitlín at the Spring, Hawkwood College, Stroud
I invite you to join me in the late spring as we explore prayer as a movement of the soul that goes beyond just words, but is so much more, where we include the totality of our universe, the ancestors, the natural world and the deep heart of our natural spirituality, which goes beyond denominations. All people of spirit are welcome.

29-31 May 2018 THE ART OF NATURAL PRAYER with Caitlín Matthews & Margot Harrison.

Prayer is the natural heritage of everyone, including those people of spirit with no fixed or Christian faith. At Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre with its beautiful grounds, we will explore prayer through silence, song, walking in nature, meditation and mediation, and working with the regenerative sacred source of the universe in the context of your own vision.  By taking responsibility for our spiritual practice, we become fully human by our service to natural prayer, enabling us to be a blessing to others. Anyone with hospitality of soul, or who is seeking doorways to awakening or kindling a personal spiritual practice, is welcome.

Fees: non-res. £222, full board £295. Held at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, 1046 Bristol Rd, Birmingham B29 6LJ Phone: 0121 472 5171. You can also book by going to: