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Reflection on the story: Joseph & the Wise Woman


Time in the dungeon

I am often asked why the wise woman spent three days and three nights in the dungeon. As I sat with her in the place of reflective imagination and put this question her response seemed to be: ‘Look at what Jesus says about the “sign of Jonah”.’[1] I should have known that she would not answer my question directly. It was like she was giving me a riddle to work with. I though first about Jonah as being tossed around in the belly of the great beast for three days and three nights and being spat up on a foreign shore. Jesus appeared to be using it to point to the one great sign; his own death – his own time in the tomb, and his resurrection. I wonder if the wise woman was saying that, if she was to look for the miracle of Josef coming to life, she first needed to meet and embrace him in the place in which he was. She had to walk right across the bridge to where he was, into his place of estrangement, believing in the “cruciform” way of Jesus; from life to death to greater life. I have heard this referred to as a “liminal space” because while it is between crisis and the journey to greater life, it is also a threshold. The prodigal’s desolating time in the pig-pen is also his place of coming to his senses, of reaching within himself for a sustaining memory of home.[2] The wise woman’s riddle still keeps me pondering!

For Jesus and for Jonah it was three days. For Josef it was twenty years. I have noticed how a life crisis can bring us to the place of self discovery. It can also bring us to the place of self-destruction. It can be like sitting on a knife-edge trying to choose which way to go. Josef did not choose the way of life, but rather to implode within, choosing death over life. He helps me look for those choice points of potential death-making in my own life. They are certainly there.

I know that the wise woman was a wounded healer. It shows through in her deeper knowing and sensitivity – in her wisdom! She gives me a glimpse of the power of human relationships in the journey through estrangement to embrace. Josef sums this up for me: ‘Her hold on life was so much stronger than my hold on death.’ She walks in the way of the true guide. Her capacity for self-giving and other-receiving actually embodies his way which she in turn reflects to Josef. She is a lesson in the hospitality of embrace and has obviously opened herself to the transforming touch of the true guide. She has journeyed with Josef.

The secret of embrace

The secret to the wise woman’s hospitable embrace was that she was a person who was fully alive. This aliveness was expressed in her relationships, not only with Josef but with those around her, be they prison guards or members of the royal court. Then there was her incredible inner freedom – a freedom that could evoke freedom in another, even a person who as closed to relationships and to himself as was Josef. Indeed she was free enough to become humble and poor within herself in order that such a pilgrim might become rich.[3] She did not seek to give to others from her own riches or expertise. Rather, through her humility and poverty, she was able to reveal to pilgrims like Josef their own inner riches, their gifts, their unique value, and to trust them and the capacity that they held within their souls to grow.[4] The self-giving, other-receiving love that flowed through her, reflected abundance, not scarcity, and her embrace was spacious and expansive. The wise woman’s most profound secret behind her aliveness, her freedom and her wide embrace of others was her intimate relational connection to the source and flow of this living flame of love.[5] The furnace of her transformation had been the burning ember of prayerful solitude.

There was much the wise woman could connect with in Josef. She was struck by the intensity of his grief, and was in awe that he had indeed held on to life so long, confronted as he was by so much darkness. His story, where it had come into language, and where it had formed its unstated impression through “empathic vibration” within the wise woman’s feelings, emotions and body, unearthed little inner caverns that resonated back to her fragments of a story she knew to be her own.  Despite Josef’s apparent abandonment of much of life, and the different paths both had trod, the wise woman knew that their clay had been formed from the same dust. She knew that while from the outside people might consider them very different, key to the growth that occurred through their encounters was, for the wise woman, that they were no different.

Relational mutuality

While the wise woman patiently held up a mirror through which Josef could glimpse reflections of his own life, he unknowingly held one up for her. She sought to be aware of and awake to what was reflected in both mirrors. The content of both was incredibly rich. At one time there was the reflection of human needs so close to the core and so few they could be counted on one hand, with two fingers to spare.  She discerned that as a child, Josef had been wounded in that his basic need for affection and esteem had been poorly met. In addition, his parents, especially his stepfather, had not helped him to feel safe and secure.  All children are wounded in some way, in one of more of three core need areas, the third being the need for power and control.[6]

The wise woman was able to discern that during his childhood, Josef’s mother and stepfather had done very little to meet his basic need for affection and esteem. As they discussed his early childhood, a tight knot had formed within her stomach. The wise woman knew that knot well. She had learned to trust her own inner resonance. It could assist her to discern what was happening inside the other person. As a small child this had also been her wounding. She had not received sufficient affection from her parents. It was her awareness of her own wounding, and the finetuned appreciation of the message of the stomach knot, which enabled her to enter deeply, and with discernment, into Josef’s story. As a conscious, self-aware and fully alive person, the wise woman was engaging with Josef’s story, not just with her ears, but with her whole being.

The wise woman’s relationship wounding

The wise woman acknowledged that as a very small child, and later as a younger person, she had been deeply wounded in this area of affection and esteem. Her parents, preoccupied as they were with other pressing issues, were unavailable to her at an intimate caring level.  She longed for their love and for their touch, but it did not come. She even invented a little world of fantasy and dream in which she imagined loving, caring and perfect parents. It was a creative diversion that partially sustained her. As a young woman she made a friend, who for a time, seemed to fill some of the void that had opened up in her life.  She secretly gave this friend a fantasy dimension that made her larger than life. When this friend left, it was as though something within her had died. The wound had deepened. No wonder she had a deep resonance with Josef’s story!

Close relationships in adulthood still contained elements of fantasy. However, along with the deep attraction that might grow towards another person, could come defensiveness and resistance. How she longed for her fragile heart to be nurtured and to receive love without condition. After the deep despair that followed broken relationships, this young woman sought a wise companion. It was on this journey of soul awakening through her estrangement that she discovered for herself what she, at the time, considered the saddest of all realities. No human person could fill this void! For a time the despair threatened to devour her. But she had named the deepest of all her wounds. During this dark time the companion held her in a gentle relational embrace and encouraged her to be awake and attentive to the estrangement that had become unmasked before her. The companion held the hope of something more – something greater – beyond these painful experiences, and waited with this pilgrim as they journeyed together through the eye of this storm.

One day, while attending to the darkness that surrounded her, the young woman was mysteriously transported to an early childhood scene. She saw herself as a small child sitting on the knee of her very loving and spiritually wise grandmother. Because the death of this favoured adult had been a deep trauma for her, the memory of the scene she now witnessed had long been lost. Lost that is, until now.  Now in her mind’s eye Grandma had the little girl in her arms and was reading her a bible story. The child was totally engrossed. She then experienced the arms of her grandmother merge into the enfolding arms of her God. How this happened, the wise woman says she will never know. But it was more real than real. It changed her life! Grandma, as the one adult who freely expressed her great love for this child, had somehow become a bridge. A bridge to the ‘something more’!

Through this transformational event, the wise woman’s history had not changed. However, the wound of her unmet need for affection that her soul had opened up to her no longer had her trapped in the estrangement of constantly seeking attachments. Mysteriously she was part of a larger history where her wound was held within the embrace of a greater wound. Within this loving embrace this wound was transformed into a place of sensitivity, discernment and compassion. This became a wonderful resource that she was able to place in the service of others. There was forgiveness for her parents, an essential part of which was the surrender of all hope for a different past. Though there was still sadness, and though the deep yearning for love would resurface from time to time, the wise woman knew that the nest she once left in the Divine presence was the secret home for all of her longing.[7]

Losing her fear of the dark

Josef had been well served from the wise woman’s wound. He had been able to talk about other consequences of the wise woman’s inner work, such as the strength of her connection with life and her inner freedom. Another of his observations was that she was not afraid of the dark. She said that an important part of her inner work had been to face her fears head-on. Part of her inner transformation had been what she described as: ‘Being called out of the house of fear – fear of not being loved – to actually live in the house of love.’[8] She said that in companioning others she needed to lose her fear of the dark so as to be able to walk towards, rather than flee from, pain and suffering. This is what had enabled her to accompany Josef and others through the dark places. She said she needed to follow Jesus up to Jerusalem, the place of humiliation, suffering, pain and ultimately death. She was learning to love others as she had been loved.[9] She had to learn to walk through these places and not run away.

The wise woman had also learned to reflect and embody the self-giving, other-receiving and sacrificial love of Jesus to the pilgrims she met along the way. She spoke of how the open arms of Jesus on the cross held great significance, revealing to her how God made space in God’s self for all of broken and sinful humanity, including herself. Such an embrace represented for her a tough, always stretching and sacrificial love. Far more than a feeling it was a covenantal love; a loving embrace held constant within God’s unbroken covenant for a humanity who constantly broke it.[10] ‘That is the love that I desire to be a channel for,’ the wise woman would say. And this is exactly what we witness in her companioning of Josef. Her work was self-sacrificial and something of her did die in order that Josef would find greater life. Yet it was not the wise woman’s essential self that perished for the deepest part of her soul was being fashioned in the image of the God whose loving and covenantal embrace is never broken.[11]

Following Jesus

The wise woman spoke about what it meant for her to follow the way of Jesus.  She said that this was being in tune with the source of every gift she brought into companioning pilgrims. For her, this was a life-style choice. She said that as a young person she had dreamed of becoming a saint. The dream rekindled after her encounter with Grandma and the child. She had emerged from darkness and despair of her void to glimpse something far greater than herself. She certainly wanted to open a place within her soul for personal and intimate connection to that ‘something more’. She even envisaged this soul sanctuary as a place of simplicity and light. As she looked back she was rather horrified with her self-preoccupation and how she had been held captive to a yearning for love, affection and esteem. It was as she revisited this estrangement within a loving embrace that she discovered within it the invitations of grace to the possibilities of truer freedom and a way that allowed for the expression of a more authentic and less grasping love. She was learning how to love God with all her heart, all her soul, all of her mind and with all of her strength and then to allow love to flow to her neighbour.[12] In this act of loving she discovered she was loved, desired and desirable. She soon became very bored with the littleness and self-centeredness of her conformist life lifestyle. She could now actually live in simplicity and walk lightly on the earth carrying to others the experience of love that she herself now knew.[13]  She had re-set her heart on the kingdom of God.[14]

The wise woman said she deeply desired this simplicity and love as her watchwords. She chose to submit herself to Jesus as her everyday guide. His encouragement was that she begin exactly where she was using the resources and potential she already had available to her. She had been encouraged to learn from his humble and gentle heart and to watch closely how he did things, particularly as he met with people throughout the pages of the gospels.[15]  She sought to embrace what he had lived and died for, walk pathways similar to those he had taken, and to see things much as he had seen them. She realised that this did not mean copying everything he had done, but saw it as a way of bringing all of her potential, uniqueness and gifting into fruition and into service for others.[16]

Learning the hospitality of embrace

More than anything, she desired to learn from Jesus how to love. Her question to him was:  ‘How can all that I do, and how can all of my energies and potential, be transformed into love?’ Jesus showed her how she could be remade from the inside out. This was the way that his form of love and light would break into her world and spread to those around her. There was acknowledgement that he would take her to places she would rather not go, and into situations involving darkness and suffering. This was similar to how he had taken his disciples to Jerusalem. Jerusalem of course turned out to be a place of suffering. But it also became a place of glorification. The wise woman resolved to keep this guide very much before her. She determined not to stay where she was, not to look back and be recaptured by the past, but with eagerness and enthusiasm look forward to what lay ahead.[17] Through surrendering to this guide, his self-giving, other-receiving and sacrificial of love became enlivened within her in ways that totally surprised her and far exceeded her imagining.

Giving and receiving

Basic to the wise woman’s understanding of companioning was that, in a mysterious but also sacramental way, God was present and at work within the encounter. She said that so often we journey with people with the Risen Lord alongside us, ‘but our eyes are ‘holden’ (captive) and we do not recognise Him.’[18]

When asked could she could talk a little more about God’s sacramental presence, she responded by holding out her open hands. She explained: ‘In my left hand is this gift that I have received from God. I need to hold it very gently. In my right hand is my task. This is what I need to put into action. I always need to acknowledge both hands. My left hand receives a gift that is a flow of love that comes from the heart of God. Indeed, it is an outpouring of the self-giving, other-receiving and sacrificial love that constantly flows among the Persons of the Trinity.’[19] The wise woman then held her left hand close to her heart. She extended her right hand outwards. ‘My right hand seeks to extend this flow of love and its embrace in compassionate and redemptive service to others including the pilgrims I meet along the way.[20] Both hands need to work together.’ She said that this enabled her to use all of her own personal resources knowing that she was only a vehicle for something larger, doing immeasurably more than she could ask or even imagine.[21]  In a very small and humble way she could participate in making God’s concern, love, compassion, acceptance, support and deeper peace – indeed, God’s Shalom – present to the pilgrim she was companioning. In a flesh and blood way, this is what they were seeking.[22] This for her was participating in the life and purposes of the kingdom of God.



[1] Luke 11: 29.
[2] Luke 15: 15-17.
[3] The Apostle Paul, speaking of the genuineness of love, suggested: ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Corinthians 8: 9, NRSV.
[4] Vanier, Jean (1988). The Broken Body.  Homebush: St Paul, p. 80.
[5] The Living Flame of Love is the poem of John of the Cross. It stanzas speaks of an elevated union with God deep within the soul. The flame is the love of the Holy Spirit. Accessed: <>
[6] Keating, Thomas (1995). Intimacy with God.  New York:  Crossroad, p. 20.
[7] Adapted from John O’Donohue.
[8] Adapted from a phrase attributed to Henri Nouwen.
[9] John 15: 12. This was a response to Jesus’ command ‘…that you one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ John 15: 12-13, NRSV.
[10] Miroslav Volf (1996). Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville: Abingdon, p. 154 & 156.
[11] Ibid., p. 155.
[12] Matthew 22: 37-39.
[13] Adapted from Carretto, Carlo (1982). I, Francis. London: Collins, p. 9.
[14] Matthew 6: 33.
[15] Matthew 11: 29 (See this emphasis in The Message)
[16] Rule for a New Brother (1973). London: Darton, Longman & Todd, p. 7.
[17] Adapted from Ibid.
[18] Deborah Smith Douglas (2003). The Poverty of God: Love in the Ruins. Weavings, 18 (6) p. 17;  Luke 24: 16, (KJV).
[19] Robert Egan (2001). The Mystical and the Prophetic: Dimensions of Christian Existence. The Way Supplement, 2001/102, p. 102.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ephesians 3:20.
[22] Hart, Thomas (1980). The Art of Christian Listening.  New York: Paulist Press, p. 9.

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