“And we may hear the voice of the Master, faced with our bungled lives, ‘you of little faith, why do you hesitate?’” (i)
This appeared on my screen as I sat down to write this profile. A post of Cynthia Bourgeault's from Spiritual Gifts from the Imaginal Realm, as she quotes Teilhard de Jardin.
I live in Fremantle, Australia, where the Derbarl Yerrigan (the Swan River) meets the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most isolated cities in the world. They say we are shaped by land and culture. I believe this to be true. I know well the experience of standing where the river meets the ocean, where ocean meets shoreline. That swirly burly place. A place of exchange, of expansion and contraction, of transformation, of disorientation and the experience at times of being swept away and swallowed up. I know this landscape, inner and outer.
I became a midwife to be with a woman, partner and baby, holding a still point of trust in that place of passage; of transformation; of being born – swirly burly indeed. My experience is, that pregnancy, labour and birth and becoming a parent, if entered into as consciously as possible, is the practice of Centering Prayer embodied. Being in the unknown and letting go. Lots of it!
Midwife translated to French is ‘Sage Femme’. But what is it to be wise? It has perhaps been my life’s quest. For context, I was confirmed in the Anglican Church. Early in my life I intuitively knew that Wisdom doesn’t originate in doctrines or in the small self. I’ve swam down river in the Mercy of life, from the parched secular and ignorant lands of my western culture, but also enjoyed the fruits of science, privilege and linearity. And, like the Derbarl Yerrigan (The word for our local Swan River in the language of the Whadjuk Noongar People, the traditional custodians), that winds its way to the ocean, Wisdom is non-lineal.
I studied the health sciences in Occupational Therapy and Midwifery, leaning to, and exploring the connection between mind and body. I’ve also studied the wisdom of the body and the interweaving of body, mind, and spirit through the practice of Yoga and various Bodywork therapies. The heart has expressed itself in the creativity and joy of singing, chant and creating community and communion around this art (and practice) for nearly 20 years.
Amidst all of this is the innate knowing that I am of clay, as our beautiful earth. I enjoy John O’Donahue’s description of this, “The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows.” (iii)
Within my inner landscape, not conjured up by the imaginations of the mind–closer than that–is a woman who is seen within the earth in a cave. I call her dungeon woman. Her Wisdom is silent, playful, patient and potent.
She can hold pain- heart wrenching, separation from Love; earth grief pain. She exists in Kairos time. This quote from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene comes to mind to encapsulate her silent gaze: “freed from Ignorance…liberated from the chains of forgetfulness which have existed in time.” (ii)
I use this as an example of my trust that Sister Wisdom (I would feel more comfortable in calling her “Oh Revered One”!!) is deep within the clay of our own beings. Patiently waiting to expand our identity into this all knowing, fierce loving presence. Thomas Merton almost joyfully proclaims, “This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.” (iii)
My life’s partner is Ken. He is a silent, reverent, see what you get man. His childhood was up river, near rock and plains, in Catholic territory. The other night I clapped my hands next to Ken’s ears to squash a moth. I said they like to hide in dark places where we won’t see them. Ken retorted, “sounds like the ego.” Our commitment to seek out the moths in dark places and bring into the light- not so it can be squashed but included, has been The Work. Bloody hard work too. But this dying to a Greater Love is worth it.
There have been many teachers, including the gift of children, and mentors along the way, from many faith traditions too: psychology; dreams; stories; the body’s wisdom; the enneagram; self-inquiry; neuroscience; service and justice work; and years and years of contemplative silence.
And what led me to exploring Wisdom through The Christian lens? An unannounced “in the dirt” encounter- Mother Mary first, and then the Master Wisdom Jesus himself/itself. A line was drawn in the sand. Indescribable forgiveness poured out and through despite this “bungled life”. I have been devoted ever since. Yes, I have had the enlightening mystical experience, but this encounter, was about needing a Wisdom Master to guide, to teach how to remain humble, to be still- in love – in the swirly burley waters of samsara. This, I see, is my function. To offer this forgiveness, over and over again, dying to the limited mind’s prideful positionings, to the smallness of ‘me’.
This experience 20 years ago opened me to the writings of the Christian mystics and through the Center of Action and Contemplation – Cynthia. I thank God for this. Cynthia paints, in words, (I have heard one of her students proclaim “it’s a Picasso in words”) a vast landscape, from the source of the river, to the Ocean, the depths, the heavens and beyond, complete with colour coding of how to paint it yourself! It is grounded in direct experience and embodied faith-not merely theological. To hear with such clarity my own direct experience of the transformative mystery and beauty of the Christ event, and the integral role of the Mary’s within it, brings my hands into a posture of gratitude.
Intuitively I have always worked with the three centers, but diving into the well of ancient knowledge to now ‘see’ what St Paul and the desert Mother and Fathers are pointing to, in speaking of the “eye of the heart” has been revelatory. The embodied presence slowly, compassionately, humbles the mind to be the deck hand. Placing the “mind in the heart” is a focussed embodied path towards that profound beatitude- “Blessed are those pure in heart for they will see God.” (v)
How do I live this devotion outwardly? I choose to stand firm in the waters where ocean meets river. And listening ever deeper, by “pondering it all in my heart” to where this standing may be. In midwifery, family, community, in earth. It is humbling when I listen to the movement of this faith. Life unfolds in and of itself. There is a profound synergy and wholeness to everything.
At the beginning of 2020 I pulled back from being summoned in the middle of the night for births. I felt a call that something else needed to be midwifed through. I was led to the community of Wisdom Waypoints and the students of Cynthia. A well of wisdom to be inspired and humbled by; support to be resolute to the path; and guidance through its wise mentors. It is a delight and privilege to participate in the exchange and offer Wisdom sits and chants. I devotedly and resolutely remain open to what is to be midwifed. I bookend this profile with a Wisdom saying Cynthia is inviting us into. It is what these times call for–courage. “Whether I live or die- I am the Lords.” (vi)
i. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, p. 112 found in Spiritual Gifts from the Imaginal Realm Session 5 The Building Blocks of Imaginal Exchange by Cynthia Bourgeault; course available here at Spirituality & Practice.
ii. John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
iii. Gospel of Mary Magdalene Dialogue Three
iv. Thomas Merton, from “Hagia Sophia” in Emblems of a Season of Fury (found in the Postscript of When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature
v. Mathew 5:8
vi. Luke 2:1
More About Beth O’Neil
Beth is happy to be contacted about Wisdom work in Australia and beyond; and has been listening to how a Wisdom community might emerge, allowing the space for her devotion, deep listening and daily practice of a living Wisdom within the appearance of the ordinariness of human life.
Beth identifies birth as an experience which offers empowerment and deep insight into the unbounded mystery of life, and the power of giving oneself to a greater love. She is always open to listening and sharing her insights with mothers and mothers to be on this journey. She has worked overseas, in hospitals, birth centres, supported in homebirth, and teaches in parent education.
Beth brings her experience of living Wisdom to her participation in the Wisdom Waypoints book circles, chanting, and holding the post in the meditation circles on zoom. At home Beth organises and leads Heart Song at St Pauls, Beaconsfield- a service of chant and wisdom sayings embraced in silence. She is part of a local Centering Prayer community and an interfaith contemplative group exploring Wisdom embedded in other faith and spiritual traditions.
Beth lives with her husband Ken, surrounded by her two sons, family and friends in Perth West Australia. She loves being in the elements, in water, walking and camping in nature, and living simply and lightly on the earth as possible.