Stonington 2017 Part III: The Voyage with Saint Brendan Begins
Parts I and II of Stonington 2017, “Mornings With Teilhard” and “Celebrating Rhythm and Community” can be found on Breaking Ground, where participants share their reflections on the morning teaching, the rhythm of the days and the building of a community, a vital organism of exchange and exploration.
Here in Part III the gathering reconvenes after a day to integrate and explore, returning for the last days of the 2017 Wisdom Ingathering with Cynthia’s play “The Voyage of Saint Brendan” occupying center stage.
A living ocean for the thirsty soul –
And D said outright, “Sing to your insides”
and that made all the difference. I became one
with the ocean. Waves of vibrations hit the walls
of my body and it became spirit.
A fertile soil for restless hands –
And A said, “Stoop over and swing your arms”
and that gave new life to my arms. I became one with forests and earth. The movement of my dangling arms silenced my mind.
A deep well for the telling of tales –
And N said after deep listening,
“You have to write about that” and
old tangles in my brain uncoiled. And
I joined the red flow of my heart.
A watering place for the sowing of seeds –
And C said, “Practice this while you work”
and I sensed the feathery cosmos and
the Cosmos as One. And I trusted the dirt with
all my soul and all my might.
An oasis of spirited body and embodied spirit –
And she said, “Come up and sit with me”
and we walked forward awash in the unitive chant.
And the more I sung to my inside, the more
I felt connected to the outside.
A beachhead for the traveled pilgrim –
And then she said as her boat beached
on familiar soil, “And T says never betray
an opened heart.” And the Bread and
the Wine became One.
One of the first sharing’s I received about the 2017 early June Wisdom Ingathering in Stonington, was very simple. “HEART” wrote Rebecca P, all in caps. Soon after, Julia D’s poem AND followed, both women capturing and expressing the essence of retreat, simply and beautifully.
As the retreat reconvened after the “free day to explore” Wednesday, the growing sense of community was resounding, as was a spirit of praising. The group was both refreshed, more familiar and in a process of deepening. A sense of devotion shown through in the silence, the quality of listening, the music. Now, as the banner of Saint Brendan hanging on the wall behind the lectionary greeted the gathering with new purpose, it was time to bring that enthusiasm to Cynthia’s play as a Wisdom community creation.
I noticed two parts of the retreat, the music in particular being part of the weaving that held it all together. Through both the Taize evening of chanting and the play, I kept being made aware of the committed intention of the musicians. For some it was their first time in Stonington, and the practice, what they gave of themselves to make that happen. (Rebecca P)
Leaving the Taize Jam on Tuesday evening I walked down the hill in tears, moved beyond words by the beauty in the sound. The evening had brought musicians and singers together as a gathering of hearts, everyone participating. The Monday afternoon introduction to Saint Brendan had also prepared the soil. Now the group dove into the play; actors rehearsing with the musicians in the morning work sessions, gathering early and staying late, and the whole group arriving in the afternoons for the presentation of the scenes.
“A large part of the mastery comes in the discernment and sequencing of events, the choreography. That is an art, as is being able to improvise with the gifts and resources that are present at the time and read the energy of the group.” (Barbara R)
Cynthia’s original mystery play, The Voyage of Saint Brendan to the “Land Promised to the Saints”: A Modern Liturgical Drama, is a creation based on the intriguing story of ocean voyage and allegory of the inner path surrounding the Irish saint born in 484 AD. Written decades ago, and first performed in 1996, the play chronicles what many believe to be a first visit to North America in the sixth century, as well as being a classic tale of the spiritual journey, wrapped in elements of the Christian tradition.
“The St Brendan production was a thrill of a lifetime. I have seen my play performed twice before, but never by Wisdom students. It so clearly demonstrated itself to be a Wisdom play, and in the hands of wise and conscientious Wisdom students, it sang as it has never sung before! The cast was awesome, and I am in deep admiration and gratitude. But to Steven Bonsey in particular, I owe the most exquisite soul debt. You WERE Brendan, Steve…to the marrow! A bucket list event in my life, for sure!!! ” (Cynthia B)
In the first scene, the call to the ‘Land Promised to the Saints’ lights up in Brendan as Father Barrind relays his journey with his son Mernoc and exclaims, “Brendan, Brendan, we are living at the gate of paradise!” And with that, as Cynthia says in her introduction to the Navigatio, the “classic search story in the esoteric tradition– i.e., the search for inner transformation–” begins. The invitation to the community was to enter in, become Brendan, become the monks, see ourselves in the journey, that was about to begin.
The whole story of the journey, not knowing where we were going, who we were with… (Rebecca P)
Cynthia calls The Voyage of Saint Brendan “an adventure into Christian symbolism, worship and a transforming structure” and goes on to say in her introduction: “It touches on the classic themes: striving, waiting, inner seeing, coming to understand a new line of cause and effect when time is no longer simply linear. What has to change, inwardly, before the Land Promised to the Saints can be recognized and entered? What, as well, is the necessary passage not only through the daylight of our striving, but through the night shadows of the psyche- the terrors, the ambitions, the violence that lurks within, subtly skewing our spirit’s course toward transformation?”
Brendan speaks. What a gift the St. Brendan play was! I was a skeptic. Yes, I thought it was clever to do this play while in the geographic context. Yes, it would be an honor to get to see Cynthia at work as writer, producer, director and set master. But it all seemed a little precious for us to “put on a show.” And then I became Brendan. Proud of my accomplishments. Attached to my talents. Frustrated at not arriving. Competitive with my peers. And most of all, grasping! Our daily rehearsals and performances were a master class. The acts of enacting and singing and pretending what the mind thinks it knows is an old magic. Another practice – to embody our lives. (Karla O)
Truth has a way of crystallizing as it touches the heart through the imaginal. Audible ah-ha’s, the sound of connections to personal experience, rose in the room each day during practices and the performances as the journey came alive through the actors, the music, and the story itself. Thursday afternoon the first four scenes drew us close to our human jealousy, fear, awe and illusion, and a persistent impatience. The monks are told:
“You want to take matters into your own hands.”
To Brendan, who feels the impatience even in the face of the boundless generosity of God, comes the reminder that “arrival” will be revealed only “in the fullness of time.”
Thornton Wilder said, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always ‘now’ on the stage” (Conversations with Thornton Wilder; pg 72).
These wonderfully acted moments brought forth elements of the spiritual journey underlying the piece, as did the beautiful Celtic sea music and love songs, enlivened by Debbie Brewin-Wilson’s Celtic harp, and Cynthia and Heather Vesey’s recorder duet, among others. Is that part of the magic? That “most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being?” Enacting the play was a community effort, each one, player, musician and witness, doing their part to bring the story alive and into the present moment.
“It was pure delight to see Cynthia ‘in action’ organizing and directing the play. Her teachings continue to engage and stimulate growth in my knowing and living each day.” (Leslie S)
And the children! In the play the children and adults truly joined forces during the retreat. What fun to see the four young souls in their own transitions and with great enthusiasm make their monk’s meal, unbeknownst to them, on the back of a whale! An ah-ha moment for me, as the ground they thought so firm suddenly rocked under their feet, and their certainty was toppled by a greater will.
“Working through Cynthia’s Saint Brendan play, the working out of her teaching in such an organic way, and seeing our own experience portrayed in the play, helped to ground all we were learning, and it was such a rich way of putting it all together. Being part of the music for this was a complete joy and treat.” (Heather V)
The first afternoon concluded with the Paradise of the Birds, an ethereal Kyrie swelling from the back of the room as the birds swept to the stage in song. The birds, spirits given bodies on the holy days that they may raise their voices in praise, calling daily on all creation to join in- and everyone sang joining in on the chorus. The mystery and beauty of these creatures called forth a tender vulnerability between Brendan and the lead bird (played by Emily Sullivan, a young woman and professional actor whose beautiful and powerful voice was a match for her role). And yet, our voyager’s distress, the desire to succeed, to know now; answered only with:
“No achieving in the lands here below…only Becoming…”
The second day of the play brought the community into deeper territory of mystery and suffering, miracles and demons, compassion and healing. Opening with the trusting devotion of the Community of Father Ailbe, Brendan and his monks hear that:
The Land Promised to the Saints is entered by one path, and by many.
Each path is a human heart; it has its own time.
Like a rose, it opens when it is ripe.
As mysteries continue to unfold, and candles light as if by an invisible hand, Brendan asks, “How can incorporeal light burn in a corporeal creature? His agitation is answered with, “The heart is restless until it rests in God.” The reality of the spiritual life, integrated into life and experience, unfolding as a process over time was familiar to most of those present; the inner struggles along the path with what is oh, so human within us, mirrored in each scene.
We meet fear, and the “Unhappy Judas”, who returns later as teacher to Brendan. The play reveals itself in holographic pictures from the imaginal that each stand alone as a place to pause, meditate, practice. The children had a part on this day as well. Adding to the unbridled energy of the approaching demons, they hurled slag (in the form of balled up socks) towards the monk’s boat to the delight of the audience. Brendan goes into the dark, letting go of judgment, growing compassion, learning to trust in love rather than power, and eventually wakes up, startled, to his own capacity to wound out of the force of his desiring.
The life of the ‘startle’ in that moment connected with player and audience alike, as Brendan’s dark night touched a palpable vulnerability in the quiet room. We travel with him to that sobering edge, the irrevocable, to the eye of the needle. As Brendan weeps on the cusp of that distress, the play presents an uncanny voice; Judas speaking in Brendan’s own heart, saying, “Holy Father, do not despair.”
I felt a lot of connection and peace and positive energy flowing through… And I felt a connection with those who have gone before us on this journey. I feel a real connection with several of the Celtic saints, Brendan being one of them, so the opportunity to reflect on his life and journey and how it applies to us gave this particular gathering a lot of meaning for me. (Debbie BW)
In his book Heartfulness, Robert Sardello speaks of “the power of receptivity” and goes on to talk about the incongruent congruency of those two words put together in the same phrase. The Voyage of Saint Brendan, rendered into a Wisdom play by Cynthia, and then- on a stage created by willing hands- acted, sung, danced, played and experienced by the community of the Ingathering, is a living example of just such a thing. The ‘power of receptivity’ at work in the world, radiating out in currents of presence from many hearts.
Parts IV, “Singing Praises on the Journey,” will follow as Cynthia addresses the question, “Is There a Conscious Circle of Humanity? And the group celebrates with music and dance during “For Our One World”, a Kirtan with Darlene Franz as The Voyage of Saint Brendan concludes and closing reflections are shared.
posted October 30, 2017 by Laura Ruth