Lineage of a Reluctant Priestess
by Shiloh Sophia McCloud
“Each woman has potential access to Rio Abajo Rio, this river beneath the river. She arrives there through deep meditation, dance, writing, painting, prayermaking, singing, drumming, active imagination, or any activity which requires an intense altered consciousness. A woman arrives in this world-between worlds through yearning and by seeking something she can see just out of the corner of her eye. She arrives there by deeply creative acts, through intentional solitude, and by practice of any of the arts. And even with these well-crafted practices, much of what occurs in this ineffable world remains forever mysterious to us, for it breaks physical laws and rational laws as we know them.” ~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes ~ Women Who Run With the Wolves
In my early twenties I went through training to become an Advocate in rape crisis counseling thinking I was going to be on the ‘front lines’ – not really knowing that what spirit had in mind for me was to raise up women leaders who would work with others who are on the ‘front lines.’ I am often surprised at where my path has taken me. I left art school because I felt my creativity was being killed, literally, and no one ever once told me to look inside for my images. This made me feel like I was dying. I wasn’t, of course, but it was one of those passages I was forced to walk through – I might have viewed it as a failure, and in ways it was, as I worked hard all of my life to get to ‘art school’ but it wasn’t for artists like me. If I hadn’t left, I don’t think Color of Woman, or Cosmic Cowgirls would ever have happened. So our challenges can become our blessings. I love that about life. Here is my mama’s hand covering mine. The image to me feels like the shelter.
“What ancient knowing lives within these hands?” ~ Lenore Thomas Straus
Art and Spirit had other ideas for me. Right after I left school in San Francisco, as in, a few days after I moved to the mountain top I found my images from looking within and connecting with the Sacred. I studied with my art mentor Sue Hoya Sellars, the one who truly originated the “concept” of intentional creativity and shared it with me. I have had the privilege of working with it to a whole new level along with the other Color of Woman teachers and Cosmic Cowgirls; but it was the notorious Sue Hoya who first spoke of it to me. Through working with her and spending time in nature and exploring the feminine, I found my language and my image and so began my own art career almost twenty years ago.
To be reverent or Reverend or irreverent? Within a year of embarking on that wilderness adventure of art and soul, I went into a certification process to become a Reverend. Who knew? I was being trained in an independent Catholic church with a female Bishop, and my spiritual mentor, Althira Romas. It was a wild and sacred time. Since we were working with Christ and the Feminine we even got death threats and hate mail and all that stuff that comes along with being LOVE in the world, and including the Feminine, let alone placing “Her” in tandem with the Lord. Lord have mercy, we were in a hot bed of hate and fear. I learned a lot about how to stand in those storms and how to just keep loving and setting up the altars. There was tons of ritual work – including staying up all night at vigils on feast and fast days. Many times I could not understand or believe why it was she was making me do what she made me do. Sometimes even years later it comes through why we had to do what we did, and the things I didn’t think were important then, ended up being the most important. Good to know what we do not know – you know?
I was a rebel back then too – always wanting to make up my own rules. During my Seminary there were two papers that I petitioned to write differently than she had requested. She made me ‘write’ why I wanted to do something other than the assignment. I said “because I am an artist.” As if that makes me special. Well it does, doesn’t it? Yes. If one is brave enough to claim that title, one better know she is ‘different.’ One was a paper about Rudolph Steiner’s work on the seasons.
Steiner’s work on the Spiritual Seasons of the Year was a deep look at cycles and how the earth patterns reflect our spiritual patterns. While I loved the material I didn’t want to write about it in the way she wanted and it was oh-so-esoteric. So I wrote about a family of bears, one of my totems. I connected them to the dark night of the soul and correlated it to hibernation and somehow connected the whole thing to the solar and star system, Ursula Major and Minor. The main character was a young she-bear, Ursula of course. I had her tell the story from her dark night dream time and about her emergence and awakening.. My connections with the mystery, four directions and elements were strengthened during these approaches to these reflections and approaches to the material which felt over my head.
Another one I can remember was on Subtle Body Anatomy. I am not a seer in the way many are – but I really, really connected with the concept of subtle body anatomy, but not in the way they were teaching, it was too psychospiritual for me. I did begin to ‘see’ information in new ways that has continued to now, and very much informs the painting method I teach. But since I wasn’t ‘getting it’ the way she hoped (I didin’t see lights or auras) I petitioned to do something else than write that paper. Once again she looked at me like:
Do you always have to be the exception? I ended up doing a mobile of colored crystal beads in a spiral representing the layers of the subtle body (Oh-so-Boulder, Colorado), and I painted a painting showing a woman who had a tear/opening in her subtle body – that she had learned to moderate, but was there due to the attack on the feminine and on our bodies in a world where there is poison food and water and violence. It was an opening in the small of her back – at her spinal cord. Then I wrote about the painting instead of about the concepts of subtle body anatomy – but in some cosmic way, I really got it and have been working to repair those tears I saw in ‘her’ system ever since. One red-threaded stitch at a time.
We each need to find our own language. The interesting thing is, as I tell you this, I am present to the reality these two rebel acts had to be fought for, and yet they are the ones I learned from the most – making the assignments my own. She wanted to be sure I understood the information – and I wanted to be sure I did too. But I needed to speak it in my own language. I ‘use’ the information from these assignments all the time – more than I could ever imagine. We each must do the work to find our own language, and for many of us, image is that access point to discovering a way of speaking and writing that we never thought was possible. I am truly in love with the work we do at Cosmic Cowgirls University – it really does feel like we are engaged in global revolutionary education, recently we streamed to over 100 people on four continents. I mean, that is crazy cool! Painting together across the cosmos? Who knew I would go from art school drop out to teaching art globally? And, I am having a blast!
This painting on the left is by my mama, Caron McCloud it is her Shekinah – and that little brown girl jumping towards her is representative of my mom, in relationship to the and exploring Feminine Divine. I love how it expresses the desire for connection with the Divine. I come from a lineage of creatives, and part of my sharing my story with you is to say – there is a foundation where we come from and where we are headed that has led to this moment in our story and the red thread has connected us. For too too long many of us have been separated from out creative fire – but no longer. We are lighting up the world with images, dances, poems and songs honoring our paths.
My big discovery in my early twenties: In the presence of beauty there is no harm. Embodiment for me is about seeking beauty – the beautiful path. Not so very long ago I decided that beauty was one of my highest ideals to live out in life. I don’t mean beauty as in pretty, or isn’t that beautiful? This takes me back to the language of beauty and why the presence of beauty is so important to me. What I realized during the Rape Advocacy training I took so long ago is that LOVE could be present where abuse lived. This really stunned me. That a two people really could love each other and still hurt each other, parents have done it with children since time began. Love does not mean there is no hurt. Any blame I might have had, or lack of understanding of why a woman would stay with a battering man dissolved, and over the years I have come to understand more and more why we would stay inside of those relationships, but that is another story, a good one, but for another day. The conclusion I came to is this: In the presence of beauty there is no harm.
That fighting and hurting each other – or any situation where there was harm, could never be beautiful. Love could exist, but not beauty. Challenge and triumph and failure could exist with beauty. But in beauty there is no harm, from my view.
In my work I seek to empower women with the tools to define their own beauty.
My question was and is: How to make whatever I need to make, in and from a space of beauty? Granted, I can be fierce, and that is one of the reasons I have survived in running my own ship all these years. I have a ridiculously acute bullshit detector, and it is balanced with a seemingly endless refillable well of compassion. These two balance me out and I hope to move from which one serves in each moment and have them equalize the energy needed. To be willing to name that which needs naming and still TOTALLY get why something isn’t working, means to live in – “Oh yeah, I so get it.”
In challenge, do you expand or contract?
I am not attached to containers staying the same over time. I believe in expansion and contraction. Does it make chaos? Perhaps yes and perhaps no. Depends on your definition. For me expanding and contracting is the way sustainability is created. I decided the other day that starting in 2014, I would have months where I was OUT and expanding and months where I was IN and hibernating or contracting for Sabbath. More on this another time as I am really happy about this discovery – that I don’t always need to be available in an external way – cool. What if we did that sometimes as a community – like our own feasting cycles? Women must rest and in that rest, the fresh ideas and healing will emerge.
The image (terrible photo since it is under glass) at the left is a thread painting from my grandmother Eden; she taught me to work with my hands. She was also
an artist, made her own clothes and wrote short stories and poetry. This graphic image below is my mom’s – from the 70s when she was a fashion designer. I learned my curve and line from her hand. My deepest desire since those early twenties when I left art school was to share image and the feminine with the world – but how?
Our attachment that things should be different or better than they are – in a way, can be a kind of living in regretful-ness – and this is a huge part of our suffering. I can pray and wish for something better in the future, while accepting things as they are. Or blaming self or other. I ask myself all the time, what is truly useful here? I am a huge fan of the Muse and one of my Muse’s favorite words is “useful.” She will look at any hard thing and ask me, how can you make that useful? I would not have chosen useful for one of her favorite words, but there it is. “There is a way through – here let me show you. We can work with this.” My grandmother also thought we could work with anything, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – even with beads and trim? Sure. Let’s do it.
When I was ordained a Reverend from my underground school, I thought I might go forth and marry, baptize and start my own church. I didn’t know what Spirit had in mind for me. And this is it – making image available to women in this way is the method, is what we do around here at Cosmic Cowgirls. The method for discovering more about who we are, what we care about and what soul work we are here to cause and create in the world. This is a culture, an approach to life – a way of being in the world.
Our community hopes and dreams are to share this in a local and global way through the Intentional Creativity movement – to demonstrate how image and story can heal. Story lives in images, which are translated into words that enter our mind. Even if we don’t write them, they still often live inside of language and how we define that which we experience. ‘Words’ are a huge part of the work we do in all of our classes so that we can find new language for old stories – writing is the most direct way to articulate that. My mother encouraged me to write and draw from the time I was little and I am sure it was part of what caused my brain to develop the way it did. Her drawings are shared here on this page – you can see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wish I could draw as well as she does or paint as well as Sue – but my art isn’t about ‘how great it is’ or ‘how good it is’ – my art is just about DOING the work.
Art is releasing the lines and shapes and colors from their cages. Throw open the door!
The sacred work we do in Red Madonna, Cosmic Cowgirls and Color of Woman is connected to the creative spirit. This is a sisterhood of creatives where the language we speak is self expression.
Long ago I thought my book should be called: The Adventures of a Reluctant Priestess. So yes, rebels of truth and beauty are welcome here. I didn’t end up doing what I thought I would – and my life didn’t end up looking like I thought I wanted. And yes I have been reluctant – at times – to say yes to the bigger scarier callings like creating a woman-owned LLC called Cosmic Cowgirls for example. But saying yes to the big scary things can sometimes lead you somewhere even better than you dreamed.
When we embody the identity that is truly ours, we will take up the space on the planet that belongs to us. Specifically, to us. It is ours to inhabit. Let’s find that place.
I didn’t know it when I took my training, how much the ritual and altar building and subtle body anatomy would inform my work today. I finished in a grand ritual that I almost didn’t make it to, so tempted was I to turn back. I knew it was part of my soul work and my journey, but completing meant I might somehow be accountable to it, or to her. It was a part of making me who I am as a teacher today. All of my teachers have been. My mother taught me to acknowledge Source, and so I am. Mom. Sue. Thank you. Cosmic Cowgirls. Thank you. Beloveds. Thank you. Creator. Thank you. Just, thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to embody life as an artist without those who made a way for me and encouraged me to do my own work.
Sue Hoya Sellar’s mentor was named Lenore Strauss. This is Lenore’s sculpture Mother and Child on the left and there are two more below. Lenore even worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on several projects. She as a sculptor, a bookmaker, a poet, an illustrator and had her own press. Each creative act gives way to other creative acts, and to other creative beings acting in creative ways.
Can you see the Red Thread of generations? I was able to say with confidence around the breakfast table today – that anyone who goes through Color of Woman or works with Cosmic Cowgirls material will make sure their children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews will have access to art supplies. This makes me very happy.
A movement needs to move. This isn’t just my work. This is our work. This is women’s work. For this work to continue it has to go beyond where it started – for it to be a movement it needs to move.
I am a reluctant priestess because I don’t often do what I am called to do when I am called to do it. I often imagine that I am supposed to be heading up a church that honors the Feminine and Christ instead of heading up a pink sparkling ship called Cosmic Cowgirls. Who knew? Not me.
As I write this I am sitting at my mother’s kitchen table, at the Red Thread Cafe in Port Townsend, Washington. Each of us right now is writing and there are robins on the back porch, red breasted in beauty. In the spirit of the green of this land and the joy of the robins, I send this little story off to you.
Wherever you are in the continuum of your creative life and practice, a lineage of women have gone before and will go after. We are making a way for the future. For me this is what being a Priestess is right now. I never went on to full Priest but I know that the work I do is for the sacred. For our little ones to have access to the ideas and information that are available when we provide tools and teachings of self expression. When we do this work we think like the Native Americans taught us, into the next 7 generations.
Signed in Hope,
~ Shiloh Sophia
If you would like to join me for a painting journey – come on over: www.shilohsophiastudios.com
“What ancient knowing lives within these hands?
What cells constructed from what decay?
What meandering, directionless transformations of the elements,
from dust to air to linked bodies locked in love, breath-mingled,
as the moist fluid creates, unknowing, the knowing hands that carve this stone?
The stone that lives when body dies again.
This passionate stone that with cold hunger consumes the carver.
In this union there is no rest.
No more completion than in that endless effort to touch another spirit
within its complex cellular enclosure and blend two beings fully.
It cannot be.
Each is alone.
But again and again the hands are formed that carve a stone.”
~ Lenore Thomas Straus