a saint from the streets
An order of lay monastics who go dancing and practice sacred sexuality? Who ever heard of such a thing? When Grey Priestess Abbey founder Helen O'Neil was growing up as the first-born daughter of a hippie Buddhist preacher in the heart of 1980's Times Square, she certainly had no inkling that such a thing was possible. At the Buddhist temples in Chinatown where her family worshipped, nuns wore drab muslin sheaths, spent most of their days in reflection, and slept on thin mats on the hard tiled floor. At the Catholic school where she spent first through third grades, they wore severe habits, lived communally, and told their students terrifying stories about sinners who got their comeuppances when the escalators at Macy's collapsed and sent them to electrocuted deaths below.
Helen loved Spirit. She cherished Buddha above all else and always longed for the smell of incense when she walked through a door. But as she grew up, severe bullying and child abuse destroyed her inner connection to divinity and left her with baggage that separated her from her soul's authenticity. A survivor of everything from rape to assault to lifelong homelessness and mental illness, she turned to indigenous religions for comfort in her youth.
However, as she matured and faced the prospect of a life on the streets, Helen fell prey to the seductive lure of fundamentalist Christianity. For 15 years, she wrestled with the violent shame of her upbringing, trauma and sins, sometimes collapsing under the burden. She often mulled over the idea of becoming a Catholic nun, running from everything that represented an earthy, authentic spirituality.
Then there was a turning point.
At the age of 33, Helen broke through. 33 is a powerful number. It is the number of self-actualization in Freemasonry. It is the age of the Yeshua Chrismed and crucified. And it was the age at which Helen realized that she just could not continue denying the essence of who she was as a witch, a healer and a mystic. It happened in a flash, like a finger snap out of hypnosis, on the week of her 33rd birthday. She began to listen to powerful occult music and watch videos. She started wearing head wraps. She reached out to activists, women whom she felt could understand her story, and got positive feedback. She started doing all of this four months before she jumped in front of a moving train in 2014, while attempting to go off of psychiatric medication cold-turkey with no supports.
But miraculously, somehow, Helen survived. And the dams had broken. Over the next 5 years, her spiritual development hurtled forward at breakneck speed. She became an occult Christian, then a pagan, then a Satanist, then a shaman. She explored sacred fashion, wearing maxi skirts, head wraps and ankhs. She discovered the joys of fasting, eventually healing a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She transitioned into veganism, started working with herbs, began meditating and working with metaphysics and magick. Diving into the healing arts with the passion of an acolyte, she transitioned off of all medication, healed incurable physical ailments, and grew strong in body and soul.
As her life started blossoming, the idea of becoming a nun returned to her. Helen loved Spirit more than ever, and she knew that a life of worship and service would be part of her future. But she just couldn't reconcile herself to living in a cloistered nunnery and renouncing society, and she was determined to never again let organized religion rob her of the ecstatic freedom of genuine faith. She needed to be free to tincture herbs, to bake zucchini bread, to blast Stoupe at top volume, to take salt and spearmint baths in a Jacuzzi, to take her Chromebook to deserted beaches and write as the surf pounded the shore. THIS was where she found Spirit - not in some tiny windowless cell with a cot and a cross on the wall.
So she decided. She didn't need some church or monastic order or mosque to tell her she could or couldn't be a nun. She didn't need to answer to some spiritual guru that she didn't even like. She would make her own vows. She would live her own life as she pleased, on her terms - and she wouldn't give the time of day to anyone who didn't like it.
She built a strong contemplative practice based on the timeless practices of meditation, pranayama, yoga, ritual and earth magick. She set up a shrine, a boveda (ancestral altar) and two altars and burned candles constantly. She started studying metaphysics intensely, delving into subjects as wide-ranging as chemistry and calculus. She decided to pursue a career as a filmmaker, writer and shamanic healer, sharing the gifts of her reflections and experiences with the world.
And she had one final, brilliant idea - to start an order of mystics who had the same fiery goals as she did, the same passionate desire to live an ecstatic life with as few regrets as possible, to hurtle into the darkness with such fearlessness that it would turn into light. Mystics who reject the idea that we answer to anyone but ourselves, who question everything and fear nothing, who yearn to serve but refuse to be roped into slavery - wage or otherwise. Mystics who would adore the art that she produced, share it with the world and create their own brilliant work for her to promote. Mystics that see beyond black and white.
Thus was born Grey Priestess Abbey.