What is Holy? That which is received.
What is holy? That to which we are present.
Looking into the dreamy eyes of my newborn child
lifted from the salty ocean of the Great Mother,
blood still pulsing in the cord that joins two hearts.
Sunning myself on a warm rock, carefree as a cloud
snowcapped mountains reflected in the
deep blue-black waters of a crystal lake.
Listening to a lover's lament, tears over a gentle man
with roots as yet too shallow to drink in the
full sun of her being without wilting in the light.
Praying at the Wailing Wall, the ghosts of ancient women
whispering their stories into the ears of stones
worn smooth by the slender fingers of their longing.
- Joan Borysenko
A quiet awakening is under way across America as women are coming together to worship, to tell their stories and to find their place spiritually, if not always religiously, in the household of God. Women's spiritual groups are cropping up everywhere like mushrooms after a nourishing rain. Far from being some kind of New Age phenomenon, they involve women of every Christian and Jewish sect including Catholics, Mormons, Mennonites, evangelicals, and others. Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim women also discuss the woman's way. Women of color and Hispanic women are likewise exploring their spirituality and roles in organized religion. Gay women and straight, those who consider themselves feminists and others who abhor the word, are nonetheless searching for authentic spiritual expression.
We do so organically, through the medium of sharing our stories, writing and performing songs and poems, celebrating the Divine with our bodies through dance and movement, creating rituals that celebrate the important passages of life and heal its inevitable wounds, creating egalitarian and participatory models for worship and by reaching out to others to heal social injustice, racism, and discrimination. God as a jealous, punitive white Anglo-Saxon male with a long beard and a longer arm lacks appeal for many contemporary women. This has led some to run into the arms of the Goddess and find meaning in earth-centered or neopagan rituals. It has led others to join Buddhist sanhas where there is no personified god. And it has led many more to question the relevance of their religious beliefs to the homely reality of everyday life.
For eons women have been viewed as second-class citizens by the three "religions of the Book" -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- because of Eve's act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It is written in Ecclesiasticus 25:24, "From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die." Many women are tired of repenting for Eve's imagined sins and are ready to reclaim the energy that has been lost to religious traditions in which the framers were singularly unconcerned either with women's spirituality or with their basic rights and gifts as human beings. Nineteenth-century women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, editor of the controversial Woman's Bible that appeared at the turn of the century, fought for women's suffrage in part by stating that we would never be truly free until the theological errors underlying the discrimination against women were corrected.
Many contemporary feminist theologians are attempting to do just that. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza of the Harvard Divinity School has written fifteen books of scriptural exegesis and commentary from a woman's viewpoint. In a 1978 essay she wrote that "feminist spirituality proclaims wholeness, healing, love and spiritual power not as hierarchical, as power over, but as power for, as enabling power." In the twenty years since she wrote those words, the wave of the baby boom has crested, washing up an enormous number of midlife women on the shores of wisdom with the power and motivation to create change. Women are, in fact, the backbone of a rapidly growing social movement called Cultural Creatives, 44 million strong, who are committed to healing, community, social justice, spirituality and to creating a sustainable environment. This emerging group is fascinated by other cultures and religions that can enrich our lives spiritually, increase our understanding, and help bring a new world of tolerance, respect, and care into being.
A variety of women's worship circles have sprouted both within and beyond the walls of traditional religion, honoring the ritual spontaneity spoken of in Mariam Therese Winter's Defecting in Place: Women Claiming Responsibility for Their Own Spiritual Lives. Jewish women may celebrate together in Rosh Hodesh groups, a monthly celebration of the new moon, which many link to their menstrual cycles. Books like Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's She Who Dwells Within plumb the depths of the feminine face of God in Judaism, the Shekhina, and give elegant and moving advice for celebrating the Sabbath, Rosh Hodesh, and other women-centered rituals. In Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, there are many stories of women's ritual relevant to the emotional concerns of daily living, created by friends for other friends outside the bounds of the synagogue.
E.M. Broner writes of sitting shivah for a lost love, shivah being a week of ritual mourning for the dead. But even though this ritual is called a shivah, Broner describes a practical, heartfelt outpouring of friendship and healing that women of any faith can relate to. She tells of a friend with a broken heart, whose coloring has changed to "boiled red," because she cannot stop weeping. Her sixty-three-year-old lover of nine years has taken up with a young woman of twenty-three. On the day of his marriage to this young woman, a circle of friends gather, bringing only a tape recorder and a cooked chicken.
Taking turns talking into the machine, they "correct" their friend's memory and remind her of her own intrinsic wholeness. It is a holy circle, a sacred circle. They "acknowledge amputation, separation as part of life." They cook and eat together, talking of everyday things. Life goes on. They toast the wholeness of the friend. They embrace Her and let their tears wash her clean. Finally they cut a black armband for the friend to wear while she grieves, stipulating a period of mourning, and a time to end it. Women from all religious traditions crave person-to-person ritual relevant to the problems and celebrations of everyday life. One of the difficulties with organized religions is that there is so little of this kind of connecting.
Women are intrinsically mystical, that is, we tend to experience direct connection with the Divine. This may occur not only during formal worship, prayer, or meditation but any time. Women often report a deep sense of connection to God as part of friendship, or mothering. We see the God in others. Finding God by adhering to specific rules and regulations, plans and paths, priests and mediators is not a necessary component of the woman's journey. For women there really is no journey. Life and spirituality are one and the same.
Going through menarche, infertility, stillbirth, cesarean sections, normal births, the decision not to bear children, the loss of a child, menopause--these are women's mysteries and passages that are intimately related to our spiritual lives, and for which we seek meaningful ritual to celebrate, to find strength, and to mourn. Rituals such as these are exactly what are missing in biblical Scripture, written by men for men. Scripture, moreover, is concerned largely with public life rather than the details of private life, so little is known about the role of women. Only 151 of 1,400 people who are referred to by name in the Hebrew Bible, and proportionately about twice that number named in the New Testament, are women. These numbers testify to the small attention paid to us, to our daily lives, forms of worship, hopes and dreams.
For many years I have been intimately involved in facilitating or cofacilitating women's spiritual retreats for dropouts, returnees, and loyalists who have managed to find nurture in whatever their religious orientation of childhood might have been. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, Christian Scientist, Wiccan, and Muslim women have come together at these retreats to celebrate commonalities in women's spiritual experience. The retreats have had formats as different as the creation of ritual, celebratory liturgy, and occasions of deep healing, to an exploration of spirituality as it evolves through the feminine life cycle, to weekends of silent, centering prayer and humor. Central to each has been the act of women sharing their stories, not in any contrived way but as women do when the occasion presents itself. We talk over breakfast, in pajamas, in the bathroom, out on walks. The stories unfold, often surprising the speaker as well as the listener. The hidden reaches of the heart become accessible as words are received by a compassionate listener. Where there once were two, there is a wiser one.
Rabbi Nachman, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who founded mystical Judais, said that if you wanted to find the Shekhina, the Divine Feminine, then you should go to the place where the women tell stories. Women's spirituality, after all, is less about the hereafter than the here and now. It is embodied and earthy, relying on personal experience versus abstract theology and the validation of that experience by sharing our stories. Women's spirituality can be summarized as relational, active, emotional, mystical, imaginative, creative, practical, positively concerned with the healing of the world, body centered, sensuous, given to spontaneous acts of ritual and worship, based on a sense of inner divine authority, composed of a diversity of images of God, tolerant of other religious traditions, and rooted in the everyday practicalities of living.
Coming together as friends in religious contexts requires respect for forms of worship different than our own. These differences keep heart and mind open. They are soul food. If we are to find a path of our own, it helps to know and appreciate the paths of others. To realize that the household of God is indeed big enough for all gives everyone room to live and grow. The idea that there is only one right way home, one path for all, creates judgment and separation. Women's spirituality is about connectedness.
As we continue to follow the thread of feminine spirituality through ancient labyrinths, we will come face-to-face with our power, the power of the she-bear. The energy that may have been tied up in old religious wounds will become freed to speed us on our way. That accomplished, the question remains, "How can we find our own path within the feminine way?" Considering ritual and prayer, as well as the conflicts and synergies between doing and being, what we do versus who we are, our authentic soul voice can emerge. Appreciating both the hero's and the heroine's journey, the balance of female and male in ourselves, our religions and the world, women can come home to themselves, to communities of worship, and to God.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Joan's class in AVAIYA's FREE Breaking Free From Codependency Course. Watch it here!
Excerpted from the new book, A Woman's Journey to God: Finding the Feminine Path, by Joan Borysenko. Riverhead Books. Reprinted by permission.
Visit Joan at www.joanborysenko.com
--The TRUTH for me "Post Enlightenment" is that "I" still need to wear pants in public. I thought TRUTH was going to wake up within me and allow me to possibly float around as some sort of energetic being. No such outcome...yet. -Ike Allen Founder of Avaiya