CENTER EVERYWHERE, CIRCUMFERENCE NOWHERE
November 2002: We sat on the floor in a circle, twelve women in a hotel ballroom nestled on the shores of Lake Geneve. It was the kind of a room where diplomats gather for brandy and conversation, a paragon of Old World elegance. Twenty minutes earlier, Ginny and I breached the ranks of its weighty upholstered chairs—peach-colored sentinels poised for the next round of distinguished derrieres—and muscled them to the back of the room. That we were preparing this opulent ballroom for a Native American Pipe Ceremony seemed incongruous. But that was before the ceremony began, before I understood how any paradox could be transcended by women who embody what unites rather than divides us, who give their hearts to that which makes us whole.
We had come together three days before as delegates of a global summit convened by the United Nations called “The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders.” It was a year after 911, time, our leaders said, to bring women of the world’s various spiritual traditions together to talk about how we could collectively advance the peace process. More that 500 women from 70 countries traveled to Switzerland, each of us propelled by an urgency far graver than what any of us knew at the time. Preachers and rabbis and nuns, leaders of indigenous tribes, social justice advocates, judges, diplomats, artists and writers, educators, doyennes of commerce, directors of foundations and NGO’s, princesses and Hollywood actors, women who had been victims of war: the faithful, the impassioned, the wounded made their way.
We met in the hotel ballrooms and talked for hours about what we, as women, could bring to the peace process, and we strategized ways to make our voices heard. One morning we walked en masse to the historic Palais des Nations, the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, and sat in the Assembly Hall, the room where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Atlantic Charter and the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons were signed. One afternoon we gathered in a nearby park and formed the word PEACE with our bodies for an aerial photograph that was sent with a proposal to President G. W. Bush and our plea to not invade Iraq.
I met Ginny on the first day of the Congress. She was from Colorado. We had lunch. We walked by the Lake. We shared a late supper. We connected. She told me she was a Native American Pipe Carrier, that she brought her pipe with her to Geneva on the chance she would be invited to do a Pipe Ceremony.
Late on the last afternoon of the Congress, I spotted Ginny in the hotel lobby. She would hold a pipe ceremony, she said, during the dinner hour. I offered to pass the word. I made my way to the ballroom at the appointed hour. “Well,” Ginny said, “let’s make the space for women to gather and see what Spirit intends.” It was then that we moved the upholstered chairs to the back of the room.
During the next several minutes, the massive doors to the ballroom opened and closed many times. Some women saw us sitting quietly on the floor and joined us without a word. Others asked what we were doing, then stayed or went. We were a disparate group, a confluence of cultures, races, and ethnicities, of ages and affiliations, with no plan we could name other than to be together in this now deeply silent room. When twelve women sat in the circle, the ceremony began.
Ginny closed her eyes and offered a prayer. Slowly, with exquisite deliberateness, she took her pipe from its pouch and spoke to us about its symbology.
“In my tradition, the stem and the bowl of the pipe represent the masculine and feminine aspects of Spirit, the union of Heaven and Earth. The smoke is the path our prayers trod to Spirit and the means by which Spirit enfolds us in blessing during the ceremony. It’s a two-way street.”
She assembled the pipe, filled the bowl with mountain herbs, and lifted it above her head. She invoked the presence of Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky. She called to the Four Directions. As she passed the pipe to the woman next to her, she invited us each to offer—silently or aloud—the imperatives of our hearts when the pipe passed into our hands.
In the time it took for the pipe to reach me, the external locus of the group’s energy shifted. A primordial ardor entered our midst and diverted my attention inward from the circumference of the circle, from the edge of life in the material world rife with separateness and opposition, toward a luminous, collective core. A silent prayer rose within me for the women in the circle and the world at large as I passed the pipe.
Ginny sent the pipe round a second time. This time when it came to me three words spontaneously formed in my mind: “Great Mother Heart.” I understood these words to be both an invocation and the affirmation of a Truth women and men could draw on, a metaphor for the compassion and strength we would need in times to come. I could not say the words aloud. But the seed was planted.
The pipe returned to Ginny. She lifted it once again to the Four Directions, to Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky, and thanked Great Spirit for our gathering. She disassembled the pipe and returned it to its pouch.
Fifteen minutes passed in utter stillness. Someone cried; someone stirred; someone rose to leave. I asked if we might each share what country we were from before we parted. I wanted to hear each woman’s voice.
“America, France, Venezuela, India, Switzerland, England, Iraq, Afghanistan,” we said. Then One by one, the Great Mother Heart moved into the world.
She certainly had Her work cut out for Her. Three weeks later, George W. Bush bombed Iraq.
This year, this 20th anniversary of 911, several of the documentaries and articles featured children who lost parents in 911. These young people had a message for us: “We have loss.,” they said. “We have pain. But we do not want to be determined solely by what happened on 911 or live our lives in the shadow of terror and loss.”
They come to us now, at this time in history—smack dab in the middle of new tragedies that tear us from what we hold dear—to teach us that vulnerability became their greatest strength. Their stories do what stories are meant to do.
The Great Mother Heart is alive and well.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
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