The Descent of the Spirit

The Descent of the Spirit by Jacques Lipchitz in the cloisters of Iona Abbey

In New Harmony, Indiana, there is a modern place of prayer that addresses [the yearning to bring back into relationship again so-called opposites…the masculine and the feminine…the humanity and the life of the earth]. It is called the Roofless Church. It has four defining walls, but there is no roof. Like the Nunnery [on Iona], it sits open to the elements. It was created under the inspiration of Jane Blaffer Owen (1915-2010), one of the most beautiful and wise women I have ever known. Over fifty years ago, well in advance of today’s earth awareness movement, Jane Owen say that our sacred sites must not be characterized by division from the creatures and from earth’s other peoples and religious traditions.

At the heart of the Roofless Church is a sculpture by the Jewish artist Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973). It is called The Descent of the Spirit. In the form of a dove the Spirit descends onto an abstract divine feminine form that opens to give birth. At one level Lipchitz is pointing to the Jesus story, conceived by the Spirit in the womb of Mary. At another level he is pointing to the universe story. Everything is conceived by the Spirit in the womb of the cosmos. Everything is sacred.

Jane Owen met Lipchitz in New York City at the end of the Second World War through the German-American theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Lipchitz had escaped Nazi-occupied France with the help of a Roman Catholic priest in Plateau d’Assy. Even before his escape, he had conceived the idea of the sculpture. In New York he shared his vision with Jane Owen. She commissioned him to create three casts of the piece. One was to be in the Roofless Church of New Harmony. The second was to be in the parish church of Assy in France. The third was to be in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The cathedral leaders agreed in principle to feature the sculpture, but when they saw it, they refused to accept it. It was too explicit in representation of the Divine Feminine opening to give birth. So instead, as Jane Owen explained to me when I met her many years later, they commissioned another artist to create a statue of George Washington riding a horse! The young Jane Owen was upset by their refusal. She went to New York to pour our her soul to a religious sister who told her there was someone visiting from Scotland whom she should meet. His name was George MacLeod (1895-1991). He and his young Scottish community were in the midst of rebuilding Iona Abbey.

I would have loved to be there for that first meeting. Jane Owen was as formidable a feminine presence as George MacLeod was a masculine energy. They later became good friends, but on that first occasion they had only a few minutes together. Jane said to George, “The third cast belongs on Iona.” To which George replied, ” We Presbyterians would find it difficult to live with a sculpture of Our Lady, but if she were to arrive with a dowry we would find it easier to live with her.” So she arrived with a dowry, and that dowry paid for the rebuilding of the cloisters of Iona Abbey.

George MacLeod was right, of course. Scottish Presbyterians would not find it easy to live with a sculpture of Our Lady, and especially its explicit feminine birthing form. Nor would they find it easy to live with Lipchitz’s name for the piece, Our Lady of Delight. They might not know what to do with the Divine Feminine, but they also would not know what to do with delight! So MacLeod renamed the sculpture The Descent of the Spirit, and there she sits in the cloisters of Iona Abbey. Every time I see her I feel that her time has come. More and more it can be said that she belongs to this moment in time. She represents the recovery of the feminine that we are in the midst of, and with the feminine a recovery of the awareness that everything that is born is sacred.

Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings. Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photo by Karin Baard