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The Epic Interview with Elizabeth Cunningham! Part 1 of 3

Here it is folks! The epic interview with author Elizabeth Cunningham, which will be posted here in three parts, the following two, which will appear next and the following Thursday on this blog.

It was such fun to be able to formulate meaningful questions relevant to my journey, and to have the opportunity to delve deeper into Elizabeth Cunningham's powerful conclusion to The Maeve Chronicles,  Red-Robed Priestess, and into the character of Maeve Rhuad, the feisty, Celtic Mary Magdalen.

I am sure you will adore reading Elizabeth's responses as much as I did. I found myself underlining and starring them as much as I did her book! Enjoy!

If you want a play by play of this tour, scroll to the end of this post for details. Be sure to friend Maeve Rhuad on Facebook, or head to Elizabeth and Maeve's blog. You'll find a treasure trove for fans of The Maeve Chronicles, as well as beautiful details and insight from the author Elizabeth Cunningham-- enriching content for readers and writers alike.


Brooke: Dear Elizabeth--To begin, I must tell you what an honor it is to interview you, and to be a part of this virtual book tour, unveiling your book Red-Robed Priestess. I was so excited to be asked! Readers of my blog know that The Maeve Chronicles have meant much to me and my journey, on so many levels. The 4th book, Red-Robed Priestess has been no exception. In fact, this book might have had the most impact on me, because of what Maeve has to go through and to witness, because of the kind of decisions she has to make in the moment, because of how she walks through them, and because of her coming full-circle with her experiences and relationships. 

I find your story of Maeve a powerful parable for walking through my own life. Because I read it as such, there are certain moments and teachings that stand out for me. I'll focus on many of those here.

I can't begin without telling you how beautiful your book was to read. It was so alive. There was never a dull moment. It either took my breath away with beauty and resonance, made me laugh, made me remember Maeve's rich journey in the first three books, suspended me in poetry-- transporting me and strengthening my own connection with the divine, or made me think deeply about bigger questions. For selfish reasons, I hope this gorgeous ending marks a beginning for you in some way. I honor your creator heart. I put you in the center of a circle, with your gentle spirit that has touched me, along with what has flowed through your pen, and proclaim, "Here now is the center of the world!"

I'm just going to say it. I feel as though you have given the encoding in your book for the ultimate divine human. In other words, you have made a role model that I can jive with. I love Maeve precisely because she is fully slave to the human condition, subject to human dramas, and carries a divine aspect of herself all at once, but doesn't walk on water--in fact if I recall correctly, she literally couldn't in this book! 

I would dare say that you have created the ultimate model for women, one who can embrace all of her contrasting, contradicting parts, and as a result find herself made whole-- freed up and open to a life being lived and acted upon in different and surprising ways, harnessing all her power. Do you believe it is possible for women of today to walk in this world like Maeve? What do you think about me saying that this embracing our contradictions could have been perhaps the most vital, but missing link of the feminist movement?

Elizabeth Cunningham: I do believe it is possible for women of today to walk in this world like Maeve, because what that means is to walk in this world as yourself. As you know from your own travels, Brooke, that is quite a journey. I don’t think it has ever been easy for men or women to counter conventional ways or wisdom for their own wisdom—or folly. Saints and mystics were often persecuted as heretics in their own time, visionaries as lunatics. Maeve had the advantage of having eight mothers who thought she hung the moon, but she went forth into a world where she encountered violence, betrayal, slavery, and oppression. Not so different from our world today. So just keep walking, sisters!

Embracing our contradictions sounds like a good prescription for any movement. There was a time when I, like many, believed or wanted to believe in women’s inherent moral superiority. I had reason personally and politically to be angry with men and with patriarchal religions and systems. I’ve come to feel that exalting women in that way is a trap. What is exalted can be debased. I want to deal with men face to face. We have different biology and different experiences based on gender, but we are all human, all subject to various delusions and pitfalls, all vulnerable. That said, there is no denying that women still do not have an equal share in political or economic power. Injustice and inequality is rampant between the sexes and must be addressed. I also want to add that cultural notions of masculine and feminine in any age strike me as oppressive and distorting. They also leave out people who identify across gender lines. Don’t know if that answers your question. But here is to that wide embrace!

B: What struck me in Red-Robed Priestess is Maeve's ability to keep moving, no matter what. She may have the worst possible scenarios happening, but she never stops for longer than needed to eat, relieve herself, sleep--plus, she takes time to smell the roses. Yet she doesn't come across as having rose-colored glasses either. She never gives up. She just keeps moving and moving, often covering large distances. She is entirely aimless and aimed at the same time. Can you tell us what this means to you? Can Maeve give us real world advice for how in the world she has all that energy to keep moving without just wanting to curl up in a fetal position and throw in the towel?

E.C: I love how you describe her as aimless and aimed at the same time. Great turn of phrase, Brooke. Poor old sixty-something Maeve does have quite a time of it in Red-Robed Priestess. She keeps moving partly because she has no choice. Her rather dire circumstances dictate it. Her time in the cave in Southern France where she had a lovely restful hermitage (see Bright Dark Madonna) was all too brief. She travels back and forth across Britain carrying warnings, so she does have a sense of urgency. She doesn’t have to throw in the towel. It’s getting thrown in for her in by the war-torn world around her. Her plight is both personal and way beyond personal.

As for advice, I think Maeve might say go ahead and curl up in that fetal position when you need to, or have a hissy fit and rage at fate. Breakdown and breakthrough are two sides of one thing. Also stillness is essential. Movement rises from it, and must return to rest in it. Maybe that’s what Maeve is doing when she takes time to smell the roses. That’s a good thing to do in crisis. In my own much less dramatic way, I’ve been in chronic crisis for a year now, lots of movement, literally. What’s gotten me through is getting up to watch the sunrise every day.

B: Maeve doesn't spend much time deliberating--often her decisions are split-second, and yet I never sense that she carries a lot of doubt. Even when she makes difficult decisions, she moves fully with whatever she has decided. Can you comment on this? To what do you attribute her certainty?

E.C: Again I would say that in many cases she does not have time to deliberate. In the first chapter when the general mistakes her for his lost beloved, she must decide then and there whether to meet him in what is a kind of dream or insist that he is making a mistake. She finds him compelling for the same reason, although she is more conscious of the strangeness of the juxtaposition. She is a risk taker, so she almost always chooses the more risky path—as much a fault as a virtue. As mentioned above, I think her confidence comes from having been an adored child of eight warrior-witch mothers. She did not have to second guess herself or them. She did not have to strive to please or appease, as so many of us did and still do. As Maeve notes in Magdalen Rising she is cunt-sure of herself! (as opposed to cock).

B: Do you think Maeve would differentiate between acting from her intuition or acting on impulse?

E.C: I don’t know if Maeve would differentiate, but perhaps there is a difference. When Maeve commandeers a boat at the Isis festival (The Passion of Mary Magdalen) in an ill-fated attempt to escape slavery, that act is impulsive –and desperate. In the long process of coming to understand Paulina, her oppressor and later benefactress, she relies on intuition and dream as well as plain old detective work. I am not quite as bold as Maeve, but I can be foolishly impulsive. For me intuition feels different. It is quieter; it seems to come from another place, beyond as well as within. It often confounds or contradicts my habitual thinking. Impulse may be related at times, but it is unripe, like trying to force open a flower instead of letting it unfold. Thankfully, since grace is amazing, those impulsive mistakes can be woven into the pattern and become part of a mysterious whole. Maeve’s rash escape attempt—which lands her in Paulina’s awful household, much worse off than she was before—ultimately and strangely leads her to her vocation as priestess and healer and finally to freedom from slavery.

B: It seems to me that whatever is put before Maeve, she is able to act upon, because she doesn't carry a heavy victim identity, but she doesn't suppress what has happened to her either, trying to make it palatable for herself or others. She accepts it as it is. She doesn't spend time making excuses or extracting end-all wisdom from her experiences. She just lives and moves from point a to point b. At the same time she lets herself feel all of it deeply. Do you think Maeve thinks about the meaning of life? If so, what would she say it is?

E.C: I don’t know if Maeve thinks about the meaning of life in the abstract. She thinks in terms of story—her story. Although that story is more beautiful and difficult than she is able to conceive as a twelve-year old when she first glimpses her beloved in the well of wisdom on her mother’s isle, she remains wedded to the story of” the lovers of the world” through her long exile, brief reunion, and even longer widowhood. I just remembered something Maeve says in Magdalen Rising that may be apropos:
Here is the heart of the mystery: that moment when our own inner force meets forces beyond our control. That moment when the plot thickens or falls apart completely."

B: Your rendition of Maeve had me breaking down constructs. It had me turning my thinking upside down and finding a right side up in the process. For instance, at one point, Maeve is called a 'whore', and instead of feeling offended, she says, "Neither of them understood that instead of shaming me, the word [whore] restored me to myself--the self who had survived slavery to become a priestess and healer, the self who welcomed the god-bearing stranger at Temple Magdalen. The self who embodied the goddess." This was so powerful--that we can get to the other side of a negative label, and find our power there? Wow!  Do you have anything to add about this?

E.C: The reclaiming of the word whore is one of the themes of The Maeve Chronicles, especially The Passion of Mary Magdalen. The character who became Maeve first came to me in the form of a drawing as a contemporary woman named Madge, a painter who unapologetically supports herself as a prostitute (‘cause it’s almost impossible to make a living as an artist!). When she consented to be the Celtic Mary Magdalen (the only one of my ideas that held any appeal for her) it was clear to us both that she would retain her identity as a prostitute –and an unrepentant one at that. There is no scriptural evidence about the matter either way. The lore about Mary Magdalen as a penitent prostitute originated with some pope, and many modern scholars have an almost missionary zeal about restoring her reputation. But I feel as long as we see prostitutes bad and other, then women can be controlled by our fear of the label. Here’s what Maeve has to say:

Some people insist there is no evidence that I was a whore at all; they are eager to save my reputation—which implies that they think there is something wrong with being a whore. It is true that his official chroniclers never called me a whore, just a crazy bitch or in polite language “a woman infested by seven demons.” (We’ll get to that part later.) Everyone seems to agree that I was saved, cleansed by his healing (asexual) touch and that I went on to become an important, if unacknowledged, disciple.

There is more to the story or I wouldn’t be telling it. And I hope you will discover, if you don’t already know, the difference between a stereotype and an archetype. Stereotypes are flat, one dimensional, like the donkey you blindly pin the tail on. Archetypes are rich, lush, juicy. Sometimes they go underground, submerge in mist and myth, like the Lochness Monster. But I am here to tell you: You can’t keep a good archetype down.” –from The Passion of Mary Magdalen

B: Maeve seems to have balanced the female and male energy within her being. She doesn't get too emotional, wallow in pools of sorrow, and shut down, but she doesn't shut off her feeling all of it, her tenderness, her nurturing side, or her ability to love and honor, even her enemies. Do you think this balance between male and female energy is what helps Maeve to feel so free to move? Do you think this is an important attribute to balance within ourselves?

E.C.: In Magdalen Rising (brace yourselves, herpephobes) Maeve has her first sexual experience during her initiation ordeal in a sacred cave. Two snakes (literal and/or metaphorical) introduce her to sexual ecstasy. At the end of her encounter, she hears these words: “The snakes are within you: the male and the female, the right and the left, the bright and the dark, the sky and the earth. Never forget.”

Later when she is at druid school, the female first formers, under the guidance of some priestesses, regularly dance themselves to sexual release. In this way, the young women understand that their sexuality is theirs, it’s inherent. Even if it is enjoyed with a man (or woman), it does not belong to a anyone else, nor can it be controlled by a anyone else. Sovereignty is another theme that runs through all the books.

It makes sense to me that this inner union of male and female does free Maeve to move. Although Jesus is her beloved “before and beyond time in all the worlds,” Maeve is in no sense incomplete without him. If she were, I would not have been able to write two exciting novels post-Resurrection.

B: Do you think it is Maeve's life experiences that have balanced the male and the female energies within her, or do you think this balance is something innate that she would carry into a life of relative quiet? which brings me to another question I'd love to ask. How do you think Maeve would do in a monastery?

E.C: This balance is both innate and learned, as indicated above. I doubt Maeve would do well in a monastery. She can’t even manage being a disciple to her beloved. Even if she could do without sex, she would be unable to accept any rules but the rather idiosyncratic ones at Temple Magdalen. She did fine, however, as a hermit. Despite her sexual gifts, she lived without sex for many years when she, Ma, and Sarah lived in hiding in the Taurus Mountains. As you may recall, she wasn’t happy about it. Her love affair with John the beloved disciple, when they meet again in Ephesus, is one of the most tender and unexpected episodes in Bright Dark Madonna.  


Thank you, Elizabeth, for such wonderful in-depth responses. And readers stay tuned for part 2 of 3, which will appear next Thursday, December 15th, where we discuss Maeve's presence in the present moment, and Elizabeth graces us with a tribute to all mothers.



Elizabeth Cunningham is the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of four novels featuring a Celtic Magdalen, including her latest, Red-Robed Priestess. The first three in the series areMagdalen Rising, Passion of Mary Magdalen, and Bright Dark Madonna. 

Elizabeth is the direct descendant of nine generations of Episcopal priests. When she was not in church or school, she read fairytales and fantasy novels or wandered in the enchanted wood of an overgrown, abandoned estate next door to the rectory. Her religious background, the magic of fairytales, and the numinous experience of nature continue to inform her work. Cun­ning­ham also authored many indi­vid­ual books as well, such as The Wild Mother; The Return of the God­dess, a Divine Com­edyHow to Spin Gold, a Woman’s Tale; Small Bird, and Wild Mercy, and a recently released album, MaevenSong.

Although Cunningham managed to avoid becoming an Episcopal priest, she graduated from The New Seminary in 1997 and was ordained as an interfaith minister and counselor. Both The Maeve Chronicles and her interfaith ministry express Cunningham’s profound desire to reconcile her Christian roots with her call to explore the divine feminine.  

Since her ordination, Cunningham has been in private practice as a counselor and maintains that the reading and writing of novels has been has been as important to this work as her seminary training. 

She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she leads singing and poetry circles as well rituals celebrating the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. The mother of grown children, Cunningham lives with her husband in a sacred grove in New York State’s Hudson Valley.


If you are interested in purchasing any of Elizabeth Cunningham's books, you can contact your local bookseller or support independent booksellers and order online through this link: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780982324691 . 
More links:
Elizabeth and Maeve's blog: http://elizabethandmaeve.blogspot.com/  
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/EliznMaeve 
Friend Maeve Rhuad on Facebook page for play by plays! http://www.facebook.com/people/Maeve-Rhuad/100002343434468
CD of original music from The Maeve Chronicles (Yes, she sings!) http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ecunningham
Dates and locations of the virtual book tour are posted below. 
Elizabeth and Maeve's Virtual Book Tour was kicked off 11/13 with an interview on Creatix Media (Click here to listen if you missed it: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/creatrix-media-live/2011/11/13/maeve-chronicles-series-with-elizabeth-cunningham

Nov 16: Part 1 of interview with Transformational Writers www.transformationalwriters.com
Nov 17: Meredith Gould Interview will post http://meredithgould.blogspot.com
Nov 18: Jane Cunningham http://morethingsithink.blogspot.com
Nov 23: Part 2 of interview with Transformational Writers www.transformationalwriters.com
Dec 2: Part 1 of Jodine Turner Interview www.jodineturner.com
Dec 8: Backdoor to the Moon Interview http://backdoortothemoon.blogspot.com
Dec 9: Part 2 of Jodine Turner Interview (www.jodineturner.com)


Comments

  1. Wow. So much depth and wisdom here. Thank you, both of you beautiful women, for stimulating my mind & spirit this morning...so much to ponder, to tuck inside, to sit with.

    With great love and admiration,

    Julia

    ReplyDelete

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