The sacred heart of gifted women: Handless maiden, stave 3

by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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In the old healing practices of many Latinos, we say that wounds are not pointless lacerations. We say that a sacred light emanates from the worst of the wounds... that nations can have wounds; environs can be wounded, that creatures and humans and gifts and ideas can be wounded.

Despite what is wounded and how, when we feel ourselves to be up against a horrible Wall of Thorns, if we can manage to peer just a little closer, very often, under that painful matt, we will also see the Sacred Heart beating there, a Sacred Heart so bright and so enduring, its diastole and systole will push us through its chambers onto a new course, often one of useful spiritual progression we never understood or imagined before.

The challenge, ever, has been to see and breathe with the Sacred Heart relentlessly, rather than only see and be amongst the thorns.


Wearing the Sacred Heart on Our Sleeves

Maybe you too had family similar: My immigrant mothers and grandmothers spun and knitted, crocheted, tatted, made lace as though they were mending up the unraveled world each day and it depended solely on them... which is to say, fast and constant motions; a whirring sound and a click of hand whittled wooden needles, a little whoosh of wrist as the metal hook was snapped to catch the next looped thread. This was the women’s music of the house.

Too, maybe your venerable and crabby old women crocheted blood-red ruffles around little ovals made of paper and plastic -- full color representations of the Sacred Heart. My grandmother Katerin made several of these for me, perhaps to protect me, or perhaps she knew I would always throughout my entire lifetime be desperately in need of grace enough to continue.

Maybe you too, as an old believer or as a new believer, wear the ancient felt and wax scapular or a pinking-shear edged Sacred Heart daily. I do wear one of my grandmother’s handmade Sacred Hearts most every day. Over my own heart. Held to my bodice with a little scarlet enamel Holy Ghost tie tack, or a little brass angel holding a tiny red enameled heart.

People sometimes ask me what that is, “Ewww, a red heart looking like it was just ripped from a fresh cadaver all juicy and bloodly,” surrounded by what some think is barbed wire. Close. The sacred heart is often portrayed as wrapped tight with a garrote of interwoven black thorns.

The lesson inherent in this representation of the Sacred Heart is not lost on such as us. Old believers know that our lives reflect this living imagery in utter reality sometimes. Heart on fire, not a spark, but a cook-it-black blaze; much blood-loss, being pierced so painfully. Sometimes almost unbearably so, and for far longer than we thought we could ever endure being pierced to the quick.

But we do withstand, even though enduring travail is a messy endeavor. If you see someone doing it all nice and tidy, take their pulse to make sure they are still amongst the living. How we earthbound-for-now souls find our ways though disproportionately difficult times is more like Pick-up-sticks wherein one anxiously contemplates “what next?” and then moves one stick at a time hoping not to disturb all other sticks causing total collapse. Finding our ways through is far less like doing a rational crossword puzzle with all the answers writ upside-down on the last page.

We can and do sort painful tangles out, for invisible holy forces still come when called, and more importantly perhaps, still arrive unsummoned; sometimes bringing all that is needed for more a effective and different attitude; sometimes bringing a map fragment, but enough to go on a bit further; sometimes only bringing a little water, but enough for us to make it to the next la tinaja, the next desert water source ... enough of a tiny piece of the Magnitude to hold us somehow until the next angel-in-disguise steps out from the far side of the road offering us mercy.

The red threads all around this 2-1/4 inch oval Sacred Heart, which I wear most, have over these seven decades, darkened to burgundy. But the writing on its paper is still clear. Besides the tiny print saying, “©1936,” it also reads in a beautiful script: Satan, Get Thee Behind Me: I Am With the Sacred Heart!

That’s better than Marshal McLuhan stepping out from behind a movie placard to validate Woody Allen’s argument with another person, saying about Allen, “Yes, he’s right.” What power when we can say, “I’m with him.” “He’s with me.” “She and I are together.” Some might think it hopeless Gothic to happily assert, “I am with the Sacred Heart!” But, I think it can hardly get any better.

Mostly because, there it is once again, the eternal teaching that will sustain the soul through diving into the wreck to do salvage: to see and breathe with the Sacred Heart relentlessly, rather than only see and be amongst the thorns.

The Handless Maiden, Recap

This old tale was told in our family on successive nights, over a long period of time -- giving time enough in between to contemplate its images and ideas, to measure one’s own life against them.

In previous columns at, “The Power of the Exiled Woman,” and “the Apple Tree: Sexual Body Theology,” we have followed two staves of the story wherein the Devil offers a woodcutter riches in trade for what stands behind the woodcutter’s barn. The woodcutter thinks there’s only an old apple tree there. But who also stands “behind,” is his daughter. He devalues both.

The father fears the Devil will take him, and so, as in other fairytales, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” the father sacrifices the gifted daughter to keep his own egotistical life filled with gold and riches.

But when the Devil comes to take the daughter away, she is too pure, her “hands too clean.” A force field around her repels the Devil. So he orders the father to cut off his daughter’s hands.

Horrendously, the father complies. But still, the daughter’s purity and her gifts, hold. The Devil still cannot take her and he stomps off into the forest.

The father offers to take care of the now handless maiden for the rest of her life, and in all gilt and splendor. But like any soul who has been severed from ability to grasp, cherish, hold to herself, bring life closer, push certain aspects of life away -- all these represented by “hands” in ancient symbology -- the daughter is soulful rather than rife with ego. She tells her father no. She will instead now wander, seeking meaning in some other way.

Defenseless as she is, still and yet, supernatural forces assist her as she wanders the road without her hands. Angels appear at her side and drain a moat so she can cross into a fecund orchard. The very tree limbs bend down to her, and she stands and sups on the pears that bend on their branches to reach her mouth.

The king who owns the orchard sees her and tries to determine whether she is spirit or human. She says she is both and he is overcome by love for her, promising to care for her and shelter her forever.

The handless maiden finds him cherishable in return, and they marry. He has made for her a pair of silver hands.

The king’s mother befriends the new young queen, and all is well until the king is called away to battle. As he leaves the castle, he is told the handless maiden will bear his child while he is away.

Although he is reluctant to leave, he instructs his mother to watch over his queen and to send word immediately when the joyous time of the child’s arrival has come to pass.

And here the third stave of “The Handless Maiden” story commences:

In time, a beautiful child is born to the handless maiden, and the queen-mother sends word to her son that his love has given birth to a fine little child. However, as the messenger carrying this letter comes close to the river, the messenger becomes more and more sleepy. Finally reaching river’s edge, he slides from his horse and collapses under a tree and is soon fast asleep.

Who should come creeping out of the forest, but the Devil...who changes the letter and instead puts into the messenger’s saddle bag a letter the Devil himself wrote, saying: “Your evil wife has been unfaithful to you and has given birth to a half-dog.”

The messenger awakens and dutifully carries the poisonous letter to the king on the battlefield.

Upon reading the letter, the king is horrified, but not for the reasons the Devil had hoped. The king writes a letter to his mother saying, “I am so sorry for what has befallen us. Please take good care of my wife and my child until I return. Oh my poor handless queen.”

The messenger rides away with the king’s letter, but again, nearing the river, he becomes irresistibly sleepy, and practically falls from his horse into the high grasses where he slumbers. The Devil steps from the forest, takes the king’s letter and substitutes his own which says: “Just as I imagined, my wife’s had an unfaithful heart: Kill my queen and kill the child immediately.”

The queen mother received this poisonous missive and was horrified. She thought her son must have dreadfully misunderstood. So, letter after letter went out between mother and son, back and forth and back and forth, with the messenger falling asleep at the river each time and the Devil stepping out to change the compassionate and merciful messages of support to malignant and murderous ones instead.

Now, the queen-mother, thinking her son had gone completely mad, for all she had written was how precious the new child was and what a beautiful mother the young queen was, went to the handless maiden, telling her she must take her child and flee the castle for her husband had gone insane and wanted to silence both mother and child forever.

In one of the most touching and heartrending episodes in folklore, the queen mother, using bandages and veils, tenderly but tightly binds the newborn child to the handless maiden’s breast that the child will be nourished and not that, despite all else, the young mother will continue to flow with the precious elixir of life. Heart to Sacred Heart.

And thus, the handless maiden with merely silver ornamental hands, but no working hands in reality, is again set onto an unknown and dangerous wandering.

But, as before and since, her heart is with a Heart greater, One she relies on. The handless maiden relies on the source without Source half in stubbornness, half in clarity, and half in bewilderment.

Thus she undertakes another perilous journey, holding to her gifts, following her most heartfelt intuitions and instincts, doing all she can not to submit to the Devil who wants to defame and diminish her, but to preserve her child’s life and future.

And, in the fourth stave next week, we shall see what next becomes of her, keeping in mind that her immaculate heart is in the habit of calling upon “the spirits in white,” that is, the angels, to sustain her during las luchas, her deep struggles.

I’d just mention here that the child as a universal symbol is understood as the aspect of an individual that carries the unsullied gifts, the soul potential that is unjaded, untrimmed, natural, wide and deep ... and in direct conduit with Creator.

The child self is the creative fire, the one who has no guile, yet who is strong in spiritual certainty and not divided by dualistic thinking. These are the traits the handless maiden, as a major force of the psyche, is striving to keep alive.

I am remembering as I write to you in this moment, of a child of mine, who as a toddler touched a rainbow on the carpet cast by a stained glass ornament in the window, and looking up at me, asked about this rainbow, “God?”

That is the essence of the child aspect we all carry, if we do not forfeit it to one devil or another. It is an intelligence that instantly recognizes the essence of soul and Creator in all forms despite being told repeatedly, Don’t look, don’t see, done say, don’t interpret, don’t extrapolate, don’t be.

Also, the king can be understood as a balance to the unconscious father figure: a dominant way of thinking, a rule of conduct that one follows, either inherently and with integrity, or by having it pressed upon one as a grid by the outer culture.

We see in the tale that the gifted feminine is beset by the ill-values of the father, who cannot stand for his own daughter, but severs her from her ability to make, be and act on her own life and her own calling, instead.

The king by contrast, along with the queen-mother bespeak an idea that the young woman is holy, even more holy because of her wounds, and that she and the new life she has brought forth while under this new shelter, should be preserved and more so, developed... despite what devils or severing fathers say or do. The king and the queen-mother provide refuge so that a new way of life, a new way through can be born.

The symbolic and actual content regarding the Devil could fill several sets of encyclopedias, but suffice here to say that the Devil can be understood as a representation of “longing without love” ... that is abject envy ... and icy jealousy of the most Sacred Heart; cold-fatted envy of the One personified by mercy, patience, love, tenderness, protection of gifts, sacrilization of ordinary affairs, ability to sense the supernatural and put it to useful use.

We can see in this odd tale, that the individuation process, the becoming fully ser humano, a true human being, is not dependent on approval, on being anointed, appointed, and certainly not on clearing the world of devils entirely. It is about the life of the Heart: about a gifted person being focused on the gift rather than only on the obstructionists and the predictable nail strips they try to lay down.

That a gifted woman or man be discarded, scourged or severed may be less the point, than remaining near that which is perfect teacher, that which is not competitive, that which is not self-serving, that which is not self protective and excluding of others all in one fell swoop. Sustenance in the midst of wreckage: to see and breathe with the Sacred Heart relentlessly, rather than only see and be amongst the thorns.

There is a story circulating currently, attributed to a homily given be Orthodox priest Fr. Luke Veronis in 1997 about the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned in the Siberian gulag. He was ill and being starved to death. He fell into despair.

“Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude work-site bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to many other prisoners.

“As he waited, head down, he felt a presence … a skinny, old prisoner squatted down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

“As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed. He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet in that moment, he knew that there was something greater than the evil that he saw in the prison, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented in that simple Cross. And through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.”

Solzhenitsyn was saved, I think it could be ventured, by a spirit in white, one who carried the massively intuitive and compassionate Sacred Heart right in his writing hand.

Often enough, through another person carrying the Sacred Heart, we are saved. But every once in a while, maybe we save the Sacred Heart a little bit. Viz...

The discarded holy cards ...

As I was preparing this series about the power of gifted but beleaguered persons born with callings and gifts ... which would mean all souls ... my young grandson and my daughter, his mother, found a box of old holy cards in the alley. Someone had passed away and their relatives had thrown the cards in the trash. My grandson’s and daughter’s instincts were to “rescue the holy cards” so they would not be degraded. As my grandson put it, “Grandma, they have beautiful old pictures and really good prayers on them.”

I sat down to read and sort, my lap full of old relic cards containing an einsy piece of the cloth touched to the cloth of the cloth that Saint so and so wore, and pamphlets about 1940s marriage instructions, and many single holy cards of the saints.

At the end I came to this holy card, which is one I would like to pour into your heart from the Sacred Heart. It is printed on that kind of paper from the 1950s that is pebbly and you can fold it and fold it and it just gets softer, but wont tear.

Someone’s hands had cut this little prayer from a larger sheet, and rounded the corners. This tiny piece of paper has clearly been carried about for decades by someone with a devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Here is what it says under a little set of hands raised in prayer, -- handless no more. I send it to reassure and strengthen whatever is in need of reassurance and strengthening in your heart, mind, soul and body:

O Sacred Heart, I have asked of you many favors, but I plead for this one. Place it in your open broken Heart, and when the Eternal looks upon it covered with the cloak of your most Precious blood, it will not be refused.

Now it is not my prayer, but Yours. Let me think only of Thee and let me trust in Thee O Sacred Heart.

So dear and gifted readers may it be for thee

So may it be for me

So may it be for all of us.

relentlessly beholding the Sacred Heart, rather than only the thorns.

“The Sacred Heart of Gifted Women: Handless Maiden, Stave 3” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, ©2008, All Rights Reserved. Permissions:

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