It is late autumn, 2009. I am 30 years old and pregnant with my third baby. He dies during the early part of my second trimester and I give birth to him in my bathroom, on my own with only my husband as witness. The blood comes, welling up over my fingers and spilling from my body in clots the size of grapefruits. I feel myself losing consciousness and am unable to distinguish whether I am fainting or dying. As my mom drives me to the emergency room, I lie on the back seat, humming: “woman am I. spirit am I. I am the infinite within my soul. I have no beginning and I have no end. All this I am,” so that my husband and mother will know I am still alive.
I do not die.
This crisis in my life and the complicated and dark walk through grief is a spiritual catalyst for me. A turning point in my understanding of myself, my purpose, my identity, and my spirituality.
It is my 31st birthday. May 3rd. My baby’s due date. I go to the labyrinth in my front yard alone and walk through my labor with him, remembering, releasing, letting go of the stored up body memory of his pregnancy. I am not pregnant with him anymore. I have given birth. This pregnancy is over. I walk the labyrinth singing and when I emerge, I make a formal pledge, a dedication of service and commitment to the Goddess. I do not yet identify myself verbally as a priestess, but this is where the vow of my heart begins.
I do not know at the time, but less than two weeks later, I discover I am in fact pregnant with my daughter, my precious treasure of a rainbow baby girl who is born into my own hands on my living room floor the next winter. As I greet her, I cry, “you’re alive! You’re alive! There’s nothing wrong with me!” and feel a wild, sweet relief and painful joy like I have never experienced before.
Sharon Fallon Shreve explains that in many ways the priestess and shaman overlap:
A priestess is dedicated to serving the beauty, love, and spirit in all life. She learns how to attune to and work sacredly with all energies, particularly those of Nature and the elements. Like a fluid dance of ebb and flow, a priestess works passionately to raise the vibration of our physical world, infusing it with sacredness. Illuminating all that she is and does a priestess experiences great joy when performing divinely-inspired ceremony and ritual. Often compared to a Shaman, she is able to position herself between the visible and invisible worlds, residing in the valley of enriched tension lying between the two dimensions. A High Priestess works with even finer, more subtle energy frequencies. Archetypically speaking, she is a direct emissary of the Divine Feminine represented here on Earth.
The book Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa is written by anthropologist Susan Starr Sered. In her in-depth research on this small co-culture on the island of Okinawa, she notes that most of the Japanese priestesses she studies here became priestesses after a shamanic-type or illness and healing crisis. More specifically, it wasn’t that they truly “became” priestesses then, it was that the illness or crisis allowed them to discover or realize what they’d really been all along. She additionally notes that some of them would become sick while actively resisting the “call” to priestesshood and then be healed once accepting themselves as priestesses.
These experiences were catalysts, defining life moments, and initiatory experiences that opened doors and illuminated paths for these priestesses, through events of their physical bodies.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I read an article with the theme of “Birth as a Shamanic Experience.” I can no longer find the exact article (online or printed), but I distinctly remember my feeling upon reading it: I was entering into a mystery. Giving birth was big. Bigger than anything I’d ever done before and it went beyond the realm of a purely biological process and into something else. Like shamanic experiences, giving birth is often described as involving a sense of connection to the larger forces of the world as well as being in an altered state of consciousness or even a trance state. While shamanic experiences may involve “journeying” to other realms of reality, giving birth requires the most thoroughly embodied rootedness of being that I’ve ever experienced. It, too, is a journey, but it is a journey into one’s own deepest resources and strongest places. The sensation of being in a totally focused, state of trance and on a soul work mission is intense, defining, and pivotal.
“Birth is certainly messy and bloody. It is intense, fierce, fiery and loud, but not violent. It is bloody from shamanic transformation. Birth-blood is the primordial ocean of life that has sustained the child in utero; the giving of this blood in birth is the mother’s gift to her child. The flow of blood is the first sign, following the flow of waters, that signals that new life is on the way, just as it is the first sign of a young maiden’s initiation into a new life at her menarche. The blood of transformation is miraculous. In Spanish, the phrase ‘dar a la luz, to give birth, literally means ‘to give to the light’. Giving to the light — mothers giving birth are giving light to new life through blood. The messiness and bloodiness of birth are the gift of the Earth–elemental chaos coming into form.” (via Article: Birthing as Shamanic Experience).
In the aftermath of giving birth, particularly without medication, many women describe a sense of expansive oneness—with other women, with the earth, with the cycles and rhythms of life. People who become shamans, usually do so after events involving challenge and stress in which the shaman must navigate tough obstacles and confront fears. What is a laboring woman, but the original shaman—a “shemama” as Leslene della Madre would say —as she works through her fears and passes through them, emerging with strength.
After explaining that the homebirth of her second son was her, “first initiation into the Goddess…even though at that time I didn’t consciously know of Her,” Monica Sjoo writing in an anthology of priestess essays called Voices of the Goddess, explains:
The Birthing Woman is the original shaman. She brings the ancestral spirit being into this realm while risking her life doing so. No wonder that the most ancient temples were the sacred birth places and that the priestesses of the Mother were also midwives, healers, astrologers and guides to the souls of the dying. Women bridge the borderline realms between life and death and in the past have therefore always been the oracles, sibyls, mediums and wise women…
…the power of original creation thinking is connected to the power of mothering. Motherhood is ritually powerful and of great spiritual and occult competence because bearing, like bleeding, is a transformative magical act. It is the power of ritual magic, the power of thought or mind, that gives rise to biological organisms as well as to social organizations, cultures and transformations of all kinds… (page unknown).
I have been a childbirth educator since 2006 and I have given birth five times. Each birth brought me the gift of a profound sense of my own inherent worth and value. It was the shamanic journey through the death-birth of my tiny third child, however, that ushered in a new sense of my own spirituality and that involved a profound almost near-death experience for me. After passing through this intense, initiatory crisis, the direction and focus of my life and work changed and deepened. Shortly after the death-birth of my third son, I wrote:
Though my miscarriage was the most difficult and saddest experience of my life, I feel like it was a profound and transformative and actually sacred experience. I am so grateful to my little Noah and for the gifts he brought to my life. His birth has taken its place as the most transformative experience of my life. I feel like I am still in this place of “openness” after birthing him, where I am ripe for growth and change and discovery…
…I feel like I can appreciate more fully the totality and complexity of the female experience/life as a woman.
I feel I actually encountered the Goddess most meaningfully during this time of personal suffering. While I previously connected strongly with Goddess imagery and was interested in Goddesses and women’s spirituality from a feminist perspective that valued the symbolism in a socio-political context, I did not feel a truly personal experience of Goddess “energy” until this pregnancy loss. That is when I felt She actually existed and when I realized that I was in relationship to her all the time. When being transferred to the hospital singing that Woman Am I chant to let my husband and mother know I was still alive, I did not feel scared of dying because I felt a compassionate presence, that I concluded could be defined as “Goddess.” And, in the aftermath of this tiny son’s birth, I felt accepting of myself in a way I had never felt before. A sense of being held. A sense of profound worth. Something perhaps similar to the “ground of being as Love” that Carol Christ describes in her writings. I was also amazed to discover that after years of self-defining as areligious, I did in fact have a spiritual language and conceptualization of my own and that these were the deep resources I gathered to me during a time of significant distress, fear, and challenge.
This loss experience reminds me in several ways of descriptions of a shamanic initiatory crisis. This phenomenon is, “…a rite of passage for shamans-to-be, commonly involving physical illness and/or psychological crisis…”
The wounded healer is an archetype for a shamanic trail and journey. This process is important to the young shaman. S/he undergoes a type of sickness that pushes her or him to the brink of death. This happens for two reasons:
The shaman crosses over to the underworld. This happens so the shaman can venture to its depths to bring back vital information for the sick, and the tribe.
The shaman must become sick to understand sickness. When the shaman overcomes her or his own sickness s/he will hold the cure to heal all that suffer. This is the uncanny mark of the wounded healer.” (via Shamanism [Wikipedia)])
Following the miscarriage-birth of my baby, I experienced another early miscarriage at six weeks and then went on to become pregnant with my daughter. The courage required to keep going and to try again after such a traumatic loss is a touchstone I have drawn upon for strength ever since. It is powerful to feel fear and then do it anyway. It is powerful to watch yourself move through crisis and emerge with strength. It is courageous to move within fear. To feel it. To sit with it. To move within it. As I moved through the early weeks of her pregnancy, I realized that while I had longed to restore my “rightful” state as Pregnant Woman, I felt disconnected from the physicality of being pregnant again. I felt as if I needed to actively and purposefully re-incorporate the pregnant identity into my sense of self. I turned to birth art, creating the first of what would become an ongoing, life-changing, process of three dimensional journaling, making clay goddess sculptures about my life and feelings. To welcome Pregnant Woman back into my heart, soul, and identity, I created a full-figured golden sculpture of a pregnant goddess and as I worked on her, I began to settle back into the feeling and connection of being pregnant again. She sat on my altar until my new baby girl was safely born and held close to my heart. Another small pregnant goddess figure journeyed with me into the birth pool as I labored and gave birth to my final child, another boy, my first unexpected pregnancy, that prompted a journey through opening my heart, mind, and body to that which is unplanned. As I look at the curly head of my young daughter and the golden hair of my final baby, I give thanks to their brother, and to Her, for opening the way that they might enter this world.