Back in London again, it all began with an angel and I suppose it was apt that our route took us on the Northern Line where the capital’s deepest underground line necessitated that I pass through many layers of strata to reach the surface of Islington’s pavements on that long-slow escalator ride (the longest on the network with a vertical rise of 27.5m). We were early for our dinner booking and I very much wanted to stop outside Sadlers Wells Theatre where, somewhere inside that brick rectangle (now closed for the afternoon) lay the very well that gave this once pastoral corner of the city its name. It is a typical story…a sacred well, the divine feminine water source famed for its healing properties (particularly of “women’s ails”), taken over first by monks, then by aristocracy…then turned into pleasure gardens…so, next, came the musical entertainments and then the bawdier ones…the district went “down-hill”, then came the modern theatre that stands there and so what was once an open-air venue for healing is now a brick and glass box hemmed in on all sides by urban griminess and endless traffic. I’m sure the theatre is a cultural asset (one I’ve yet to sample) but, as I cast my eye over the minuscule triangle of grass called Spa Green Garden oppose its doors, I would have preferred to be fast-tracked back to those healing waters of times gone by, if only for a moment.
The state of our rivers tells us so much more about the condition of our planet and our part in its current story. Like the River Fleet and its many holy wells now submerged or turned into sewers (explored in my post Layers in the landscape part one), like the River Westbourne now a lake sourced by boreholes in the London park (see my post Walk in the Park), this was yet another of London’s water-source casualties and it struck me as ironic that Islington’s pride-and-joy water is now the New River, a manmade waterway opened in 1613 to supply London with fresh drinking water taken from the River Lea in Hertfordshire, sourced from the Chadwell Spring and Amwell Spring (also dried up by the late 19th century) after its own wells had run dry or been polluted. The two well sites are connected by the legendary tale of a haunted swan (and I will share more about the swan/cygnus as a symbol of the divine feminine in a future post…): “A tale there is deliver’d unto us, from hand to hand, how that a haunted ducky, Diving within this chalk-well head or hole, Was forced underneath the hollow ground, To swimme along by wayes that be unknown, And afterward at Amwell Spring (they say) Was thrown up featherless and bare”. I can’t help feeling that the swan in this predictive tale was the sacred feminine, forced along unnatural routes by the design of an industrialised world and coming out the other end somewhat the worse for wear, as we see her now…
The sacred feminine water source I had come to pay my respects to outside the theatre was on my mind all the time we sat in a favourite vegetarian restaurant (The Gate) just across the road, not least when I went down to the basement bathroom and, pouring water on my hands, mentally called upon something that had been shooed away from this grey city to come rally herself and free-flow up to the surface once again.
Then we went on to The Union Chapel for our concert – the “Shine Your Light” tour with Deva Premal and Miten (our third year of attending this wonderful experience; though our first time in this venue) and this was a wish fulfilled as I had wanted to come here repeatedly to see various artists perform but never quite got the logistics lined up. The queue outside gave me opportunity to appreciate this startling building modelled on the oddly familiar Romanesque tower of the church on Torcello near Venice (harking back to my days of staying on the Venetian lagoon, travelling those daily water buses from which such startling bell towers rose out of the water like the heads of giant water serpents). The beautifully lit “stage” with its monumental Gothic revival pulpit lent itself rather well to the lighting, its solid-carved shapes softened into Indian fretwork under the persuasion of reds, blues and greens that would have had the Victorian congregation reaching for their salts. The rose window above, mostly outlined in a blueish tinge but morphing through a rainbow of other hues as the concert progressed, threw up its angel-inhabitants in a variety of different lights as the daylight from outside gave way to a blackened sky, allowing the ever-altering stage lighting to animate them in new ways, as though giving them breath and wind beneath their wings.
I’d had it firmly in my mind’s eye that I would sit on the left but, when we entered the chapel, I wanted nothing more than to be in this particular pew on the right, for all my husband kept checking was this the right place, did I want to move? “Nope”, this was where I was meant to be and, looking up, I knew exactly why. Could it be? It had to be – a female figure in her own stained glass pane to the side of the stage, red robes, reddish hair, clutching a golden jar; this had to be Mary Magdalene, though my challenged long-distance vision blurred the writing above her head. Then, a woman took her seat a few rows in front of us wearing a beautiful floor-length red clinging dress over her pregnancy and I was suddenly jumped back many years to my own dress just like that one, worn to the wedding of some friends of my ex who made no pretence that they disliked me and (him being best man) I was left to roam the miserable wedding party all alone wearing this outfit which he disapproved of and which clearly shocked some of the guests for the fact it hid nothing about my seven month “bump” and clashed with all the soft pastel-shades of the other wedding guests. Had I intended just that, meant to flaunt just how wonderful I felt bare foot and radiantly expectant, refusing to conform or to pull myself in? I was just relating this anecdote to my husband when Deva came onto the stage wearing, yes, that same deep red as a striking floor-length sari; red goddesses were everywhere it seemed. Then, during a mantra dedicated to the sacred feminine, the lighting turned blood red against the wall and it appeared, for all the world, as though Mary’s robes had tumbled from her, high above, to drape the stage in the flow of her essence and I watched one of the women sat in front of me stroke the back of another as she wiped away tears with the back of her hand; and (was I imagining this?) we could all feel it, this grand healing taking place. It was like the feminine was being coaxed back out of hiding; invited to take her place equally on that stage, to wear her red boldly and publicly, her blood no longer denied.
At these concerts, at which everyone is expected to join in with the singing, one thing that resounds above all else is the sense of balance that these two beings bring to the stage; the yin and the yang, like a shared seat for two, a meeting place of divine aspects. Miten invokes the feminine aspect like an awe-stricken lover encourages his love to step into his space, welcoming her with every fibre of his being; he worships and respects, supports and encourages her through every word and deed. In all his humorous preamble (there is nothing religiously solemn or reverential here) he talks softly, engagingly, enthusiastically and humorously about the sacred feminine; about his relationship with Deva, joking at how he does everything he is told to do by her but we all know what he is really saying and that he is redressing a habitual imbalance on behalf of all men as he does what he does. As these extraordinarily “real” people play out their relationship with one another on stage, you can’t help but notice how other couples in the audience seem to take heart from what is being allowed in this space; as they start to lean in towards one another, place heads on each other’s shoulders, touch hands, sit closer without defensiveness or disguise. You can tell those who have been to one of these events before; the older “hands” at it who have already relaxed into it all before they got here (and I will never forget the first time for us – in 2014, in a venue overlooking the River Avon in Bath) where a radiant orb of intensified love light and deeper understanding seemed to come down upon us as a couple that night, staying with us ever since. By modelling what is possible, Deva and Miten enrapture you and invite you in to a sacred space that becomes part of you and you of it; things are never quite the same again after such an activation.
When (as you come to expect after the first time) Miten invites all the men to stand up and sing to the women because women love to feel the strength of men’s voices lifted up in song all around them, you can feel how he moves everyone through an invisible barrier and liberates them too. Allowing the men to express a previously unspeakable aspect of their heart, to unshackle that part of themselves that has been entrained to remain locked up and buried deep beneath layers; by encouraging them to give voice to the tenderest, most open, least forced expression of their vocal cords in the company of other men (no football chanting, this), witnessed by the women in their lives – a broad mixture of wives, mothers and daughters here – he facilitates the melting of eons of brick walls built around their hearts. In response, the women playing witness to this from their standing men, their hearts swelling at being party to such vulnerability, are ready to be invited to stand beside them and join in with a hallelujah chorus of gratitude and harmony (and precisely for the amplification of such hallelujahs was this very chapel built, as you will see below) then, all put together, it feels like the very swell of the water of the lyrics of “so much magnificence, waves are coming in, waves are coming in…” You can feel the tide turning and together, in union, we collectively are the much needed water; healing ourselves.
I noticed how water came into this concert more than I had ever noticed before….a song dedicated to the “inauspicious” river Pegnitz of Deva’s home town (though no tiniest river really is) in which Miten sings of following her flow being the only way to go, then the waves coming in of ‘So much magnificence’ and then a guest musician Jahnavi Harrison invited up from the audience to join in and her album, called “Like a river to the sea”, recommended by Deva. Male and female harmonies continued to swell the space with flowing sanskrit and a spontaneous ad-lib into Amazing Grace, the transition made as seamlessly as grace always seems to arrive. As all this continued to flower, the altering lights and the building sound gave the impression that the space itself was shifting, that we were somehow transporting this octagonal place like a spacecraft around the planet distributing love to everyone in it.
The sense of all these voices being tuned-in and innately guided towards an unrehearsed harmony that perfectly blended all the various pitches, the personal notes into one unified sound was quite palpable and, as it hit the ceiling, this magnified one-sound seemed to rain down on us and feed back into us all as pure energy…something Deva made reference to when she mentioned that Miten and her felt sustained by this very phenomenon whenever they did their long annual live tours (as I can so well imagine). At these concerts, like no others I have ever been to (so many of which you go away from realising you couldn’t even describe the people who were sitting next to you for two hours), you relax into where you are and who you are with fully and the fact you are encouraged to sing to your partner, then to turn around and sing to each of your neighbours, surely helps break down these barriers.
When we all joined in “om”ing into the space, the sound came like waves on a shore, swelling and retreating rhythmically like the breath of a single being (and if you’ve ever heard the track “Shanti (Peace Out)”, it was strongly reminiscent of that). It was interesting to pull back for a moment to notice how the unified sound seemed other than human, somehow beyond human and like it held meaning beyond what human ears can decipher…similar to how whale song sounds (complex, beautiful, meaningful yet way beyond comprehension)…and how it felt uniquely powerful, like a vibration capable of pulsing out its message far beyond this planet or even this galaxy. In the end, the sustained effort of standing doing this for so long floored me, in a good way…my legs were quite jellied and my facial nerves were twitching like I had been stood in an electrical storm and so I had; we all had and it felt unspeakably powerful. It was interesting how we all knew when it was time to stop as one…no gradual slowing, no hesitation, no looking around us for clues… we just came to the end like all of us had become a single being in those remarkable minutes and the sound of silence was allowed to fill up the space again. Still my eye tended to gaze up at Mary in the red; and I knew that she felt it too.
It seemed like I had followed an invisible flow to be here this night; a long flow since finding Deva four years ago (and the three that I had made this my June pilgrimage, a highlight of my year). Then the flow of London’s unseen rivers, her stifled flow and all the accidental journeys that had brought me to those places, helping me see what might otherwise be unseeable, buried deep beneath my feet. Then the journey of following in the footsteps Elen that had amplified my awareness of a goddess energy all dressed in red and gold that had walked softly in all these places long before we bricked them over with intentions that were distorted and dogmatic and then (slowly, surely) a little better now…more open, inclusive, spacious and balanced as we learn to soften the edges, making room for each other in ever more harmony. I had been part of a river of great healing flowing freely that evening and…was it just me (I doubt it)… this thing felt very big, very real, we all took that something home with us as we left, something precious carried like a treasure in our hearts (but then we always do, wherever we go, I find…because that’s what its like when you live in the flow). I felt I had witnessed something incredible, taken part in it, knew for certain something quite wonderful was well underway…. The rivers are certainly making themselves felt once again; they are everywhere I turn and no amount of concrete can keep them down. I smiled my way through that grimy, noisy, often chaotic city that never sleeps as we just made it to the almost midnight train. Experienced like this, all feels bizarrely right with the world in a way that cuts right through appearances and softens every wall and concrete pavement; for we are the flow beneath it all.
And there’s more…
The Union Chapel had been drawing me for a long time and I felt like the clue was in the word “union” plus the fact I love these kinds of venue where new and inclusive use is being made out of once exclusively religious-based buildings; especially where there is a charitable or community motivation underlying that purpose. The Union is all of these things, working to support the homeless and those in crisis while providing what has been voted London’s “best” live music venue (according to Time Out). On top of hosting music events for an impressive list of well known artists and numerous other musical and other events, it is still an extremely active church, with a woman minister (which caught my eye and made me smile). Of course, I could sense it had an interesting history behind it but didn’t research into that until I had been there, this morning, and I was hardly surprised at what I found as it confirmed all that I had experienced for myself.
What I learned was that it was built by a break-away group of Anglicans from the local church of St Mary’s who first started to worship together two hundred years ago, choosing to depart from the traditional hierarchical structures and language of the established church. Their founding principal was to make Union Chapel a ‘Friend for All’ and the very design of the church (masterminded by James Cubitt, who began his career in my very own Nottingham) was designed for the inclusiveness of all of the congregation. Built “in the round” (an irregular octagon within a rectangle with an elaborate ceiling above), its pews are arranged on a raked floor to ensure everyone can see and hear what is going on and everyone can join in without the need to shout. In fact, music was put at the heart of the chapel’s worship, with the whole congregation expected to sing even the hallelujah choruses and the choir placed within the congregation, not separate from it. Sound seems to pour into that space from the front and then draw more sounds in from the pews, then fold back in on itself from above and grow ever larger like a torus of sound-energy that is palpable to everyone in that space (as I experienced during the “om”s that made my entire nervous system tingle). Its very design feels like the organic human energy within us is self-generating and amplifying its vibration in union with others, not that the building is trying to draw or squeeze goodness out of you forcibly, as it can feel like in so many churches. You could say that “union” is at its very heart as we get to experience ourselves as the self-generators of the very source energy that we are…and even more palpably so when we reunite with others.
This I loved reading about Cubitt’s views on the contemporary church design (following the medieval gothic) of his time; he said when the “columns are thick or moderately thick, it inevitably shuts out a multitude of people from the service … When, on the other hand, its columns are thin, the inconvenience is removed, but the architecture is ruined … The type as it remains is but a shadow of its former self-a medieval church in the last stage of starvation”. So, he succeeded in building a church where the bricks themselves were inclusive and where the very architecture seemed to swell to include all who sought to enter…and, in so doing, set an echo in play that manifests, today, as the feeding of so many homeless and all the hungry visitors who pour through its doors to hear a plethora of different music styles being served home-cooked food in the interval (so, as Cubitt intended, there is absolutely no “starvation” here); and all in some great cycle of perpetually regenerating positivity that feeds others just as surely as it feeds its own self-evident success as a popular venue with a heart.
The mystery of the Mary Magdalene window almost threw me as I could find nothing to confirm it was she and, even when I returned home (yes, I was so eager to find out, I was Googling this from my church pew…) all I could find were references and images to the rose window and no reference whatsoever to Mary Magdalene at the Union Chapel. But then I was finally able to find a close-up photo of the window on Flickr and to see the words “Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her”. I wasn’t familiar with this line but it did nothing to deter me…in her red garb and with reddish hair, clutching what looks like a jar of ointment, this seemed to be be shouting Mary Magdalene at me and, whats more (not for the first time) she reminded me of Elen of the Ways – again red hair, red garb, associated with gold, clearly dwelling in the forest, her robes adorned with leaves (interestingly, Elen is said to have lived in the woods around Old St Pancras Church, close to the Union Chapel). Was the person behind this window having a game here, were they speaking in code?
I have since confirmed that the window is “Mary of Bethany”, sister of Martha in the story where Jesus comes to their house and Mary complains that Martha does none of the housework, leaving Mary to do it all. Martha is said to be busy worrying about many things whereas Mary has “chosen the better part” by quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet paying attention to what he has to say; she does not allow herself to become distracted with outside things (although there is also a story where she wept many more tears than her sister). You could say, she was modelling what the divine feminine has been doing all these years of quietly disappearing underground, patiently and steadily holding her part (and her grief within) without adding to the drama…
Most interestingly, it seems, Mary of Bethany has been conveniently amalgamated with Mary Magdalene in the eyes of Western Christianity since Pope Gregory decided to lump together the stories of several Marys in the bible and treat them all as one; in short, you could say that they were all treated pretty abysmally, represented as sinful, undesirable and rather “scarlet” women. The confusion pivots somewhat around the fact both Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are said to have anointed Jesus with perfume…you could say, a common theme of honouring, soothing and purifying or “making things better”. In fact, you could debate whether the window in the Union Chapel depicts Mary Magdalene, or not, forever but my point stands that this woman in red presented to me as a very timely symbol of the excluded, suppressed and much maligned divine femininity that has been given such a bad name for so very long. Her very obvious presence above my head all evening felt divinely synchronistic, especially combined with the lighting effects, Deva’s dress, the music and the flowing theme of the concert. I couldn’t help wondering if others in the audience, if Deva and Miten themselves, were aware that she was up there taking part; certainly, things could not have been stage-managed any better had the window been put in there yesterday rather than over a century ago. But, then, life is just like that all the time these days…”old” threads join with current ones and they all pull together with such synchronicity that it hardly surprises me any more, though it still never fails to fill me with overflowing awe and gratitude.
Again with great synchronicity, I have had more than one “chance” encounter with the kind of collaborative music project that delivers tingles and pricks tears this week; and the theme in common with all I have just shared is pretty obvious. Just noticing how (so many) musical collaborations are playing out the highest possibilities of humanity right now is such an encouragement; it tells me far more about where our culture is heading than anything that “the news” has to say on the subject.
One of these is a collaboration between Iranian singer and passionate advocate of freedom of expression Mahsa Vahdat and US blues singer Mighty Sam McClain together with Norwegian producer and human rights activist / producer / poet Erik Hillestad to create SCENT OF REUNION: LOVE DUETS ACROSS CIVILIZATIONS. Like a long-running ode to the breaking down of all barriers across the sea of culture, language, political, religious and geographical division, this collection of love songs delivered by such unexpected juxtaposition of language and musical style had me weeping quietly and joyfully from the outset as I played it repeatedly to accompany a painting of white lilies that I am currently working on (painting with eyes misted with tears the whole time, such was the release I was experiencing via this music). The running theme of reunion and of overcoming distances and the inherent suggestion, delivered by such contrasting musical traditions, that no differences are too extreme to be bridged by harmony and love is really quite tangible. You can listen to this album on Spotify via the link and I recommend that you let it unfold slowly as its melding of two very different styles of music can take some adjusting to but holds the potential to transport you to somewhere you may never have been before if you let it.
The second – “LOVE WITHIN – BEYOND” is a remarkable and unexpected collaboration between four women…rock legend Tina Turner, Swiss sopranist and music therapist Regula Curti, Tibetan mantra singer Dechan Shak-Dagsay and Indian singer Dawani Shende-Sathay. It is a celebration of the Divine Mother and all forms of mother love (including love of self), all the female goddesses and the female essence within all of us (whether male or female), oneness and the power of mantra and prayer….all very on-topic with what I’ve shared above. The commentary that goes with the album is a useful resource in its own right and so inspiring; the principles that underly the project would not have been out of sync with those that inspired the creation of the Union Chapel, if taken somewhat broader than the Christian faith. This album merges prayers and chants from the Buddhist, Christian and Hindu-traditions, drawing on western Gospels and traditional Indian music, incorporating Tibetan bells and soundbowls, Indian drums, sitars, an Aramaic doudouk and a Swiss alpenhorn. It looks for the common themes across all these variables and seeks to find harmonies where there are contrasts. In such a cultural soup we find, as I did during the mantras of last night’s concert, that as a group of beings we only really make one sound and that it is the most beautiful and harmonious version of itself when we open right up to our truth and allow for the blending and incorporation of it all. I firmly believe that the more such cultural collaborations occur, are made available and experienced by ever growing numbers of people, the more we will come to visualise a more harmonious world as the possibility that it is and, so, manifest it as our daily reality. Music, especially, holds the key to demonstrate what is possible as we take its example deep into our cells, recognising and decoding its example without the mind so readily getting in the way. You can listen to this beautiful album on Spotify via the link (in fact, there are three albums in total and all are available on Amazon); I recommend them heartily.
Chadwell Spring – a holy well with a story
So much magnificence (waves are coming in)
Jahnavi Harrison – Like a river to the sea (which I highly recommend)
Mary window at the Union Chapel – photo courtesy of James Alexander Cameron on Flickr
I loved reading about the sacredness within the city here Helen and the way that water is the force that flows beneath it and around your experience. Loved the ‘red goddesses’ too. Synchronicities all around….can’t wait to hear more about the swan.
What a lovely reaction and yes I have a whole theory forming about swans, but I need to share about Elen of the Ways (more) first as its all connected. I am really loving following all these threads so am very thrilled you enjoyed it as you never know if these things come across as too personal or if other people “get” what you are trying to convey.
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