FALL 2007

Women’s Spirituality and the Primacy of Women’s Stories

Keywords: Female Divine, feminist spiritual history, Gimbutas, goddess spirituality, storytelling, menstruation, Third Culture Kids, women’s spirituality

Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence. The expression of women’s spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women’s stories. If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not be known. (1)

These opening words from Carol P. Christ’s Diving Deep and Surfacing struck a chord with me when I read them in my first class at CIIS—a class in feminist research methods taught by Professor Connie Jones. I was immediately taken back to the moment of greatest crisis in my adult life, when, while living in Guatemala, I faced the possibility of raising my two newly adopted children as a single mother. As panic threatened to engulf me, I realized that in immersing myself so completely into motherhood in a new country, I had cut myself off from deep relationships with other women and the sense of connection they had always provided. As this realization dawned on me, I began to reach out and build friendships with women in my new community and to read books written by women, books such as The Feminine Face of God by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins, (2) that offered the stories of other women in spiritual crisis. It was women’s stories that helped to ground me again. Women’s stories that affirmed my experience and pointed the way home to myself. Women’s stories that led me to women’s spirituality and to the goddess. I am indebted to the stories of women for who I have become, for what I am doing, and for what I hope to do in the future.

There are too many stories that have not been told—stories lying dormant within women that have the power to transform their sisters’ lives. Stories that need to be shared, heard, felt, understood. Stories that can let a woman know she is not crazy or alone in her experience. Stories that offer ways to survive, to grieve, to forgive, to heal, to love, to celebrate life. I believe we need these stories as much as the soil needs the rain. We need to absorb them with every cell of our bodies, to be nourished by them, and to let the seeds of our own stories sprout and blossom.

The stories of women’s bleeding are almost never told, even though most adult women between the ages of thirteen and fifty spend at least a few days every month menstruating. These are the stories that have been shamed into silence. Since we have not heard each other’s blood stories, our own experience of bleeding remains incomplete, subject to the overwhelming influence of religious, medical, and corporate interests rather than the healing wisdom of other women’s shared experience. Without our sisters’ blood stories it is difficult to challenge the negative conditioning the dominant Western viewpoint has inflicted upon our experience of menstruation. Without these stories we are not inspired to explore new possibilities. Without these stories we remain ignorant of the spiritual potential intrinsic to the cycling of our bodies.

My Story

we need a god who bleeds
spreads her lunar vulva &
showers us in shades of scarlet
thick & warm like the breath of her
(3)

I grew up in India among a vast multiplicity of faiths and ways of relating to and perceiving the Divine. Throughout most of my childhood I woke to hear either the muezzin from the mosque calling faithful Muslims to prayer or music from the Sikh gurdwara signaling the first of the day’s services. Although I was devoted to my own religion, Christianity, I loved the richness of all that surrounded me and felt blessed to be in the midst of such diversity. I attended a Christian international boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas in north India and had classmates from all over the world who were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi, and Christian.

My school, which I often think of as home because I lived there most of the year, was in an exceptionally beautiful and largely unspoiled environment. I often spent weekends hiking with friends into the mountains, where we slept in pine forests or, in the rainy season, on the floors of village schools. The monsoon season would begin in June and last until October. Heavy rains would pelt the hillside and I would splash through puddles in my rubber chappals (flip-flops) as I walked back and forth to school. The hills would erupt with ferns and flowers, the croaking of toads and the buzzing of cicadas. During the brief summer vacations I traveled to Kashmir with my family, where we spent half of our time living on a houseboat on a lake, the other half living in tents, hiking, and riding horseback into the glaciers and mountains. The longer winter vacations were spent in the fertile plains of the Punjab, known as “the bread basket of India,” where my father taught Indian history in a Christian college. There I would ride my bicycle, climb trees, visit the villages of my father’s students, and participate in harvesting their sugar cane crops. Back at school in the spring, the days became warmer and clear, allowing for unobstructed views of the Himalayan range to our north. Nature was a bountiful and lushly beautiful presence in my childhood.

It was while I was at home for Christmas vacation one winter when I was thirteen and a half years old that I began to bleed. Although I didn’t recognize what had happened at first (I was expecting a bright red rush of blood and what I saw was rusty brown stains), my mother soon noticed the growing line of hand-washed underwear hanging outside and assured me that my bleeding had, in fact, begun. I was thrilled at this news, despite the fact that I simultaneously experienced the first of many years of menstrual cramps. My father acknowledged my new status by coming to my room and talking to me about how girls in India traditionally experienced their menarche by moving to their husband’s home and beginning married life. I certainly couldn’t begin to comprehend that idea, but I was excited to think of myself as a young woman.

My relationship to the Divine was the most important aspect of my life. As a child and teenager I imagined God to be a beneficent Father to whom I would pray often during the day and each evening before I fell asleep. I loved to attend the small Church of North India on Sundays where my father led the worship services, my mother was secretary, and my sister and I frequently read the Scripture lessons and took the offering.

Feminism entered my life at the age of fourteen, when we were on a one-year furlough from India and my mother decided to finish her college education. During that year she took several classes in women’s studies and I eagerly absorbed as much as she could share with me about what she was learning. I became a feminist Christian, looking within my tradition for other words and images for God that were more inclusive of both women and men.

After graduating from high school in India I returned to the United States for college, where I had a difficult first year adjusting to living in New England. It wasn’t until I moved into the international dormitory on campus with an Indian roommate the following year that I thought I could adapt. I majored in ancient Greek and spent my junior year in Athens, exploring the ancient ruins and visiting as many islands as I could on the weekends and holidays.

No sooner did I graduate from college than I took off again, this time to teach in a harambee (self-help) village school in Kenya with a boyfriend whom I later married (and to whom I am still married). I felt myself come alive again as I returned to walking the Earth (until both pairs of shoes turned the same deep red as the soil) and to living in a community where everyone would stop to greet and shake hands with every single person they met along the road.

After my time in Kenya I spent five months on a kibbutz in Israel before heading to New York City to attend seminary and pursue my spiritual quest by getting a theological education. My favorite class there was on the Old Testament with feminist scholar Phyllis Trible. In studying Old Testament exegesis with her I learned a great deal about working with narrative texts—lessons that have proved valuable. She taught us to treat the text like a love letter by reading it over and over again in order to become aware of all the nuances and subtext and to use many different translations and commentaries to look at the structure, the choice of words, the context, and its application to people today.

As I studied feminist theology I developed a much more critical attitude toward the Church. Feminist New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, points to the problem of how the Christian scriptures are based on androcentric thinking and explains that biblical religion has been rejected by many feminists because “it ignores women’s experience, speaks of the godhead in male terms, legitimizes women’s subordinate positions of powerlessness, and promotes male dominance and violence against women.” (4) Another difficulty lay in the paucity of affirmative images of the female in the Bible. Thealogian and psychologist Christine Downing said:

We are starved for images that recognize the sacredness of the feminine and the complexity, richness, and nurturing power of female energy. We hunger for images of human creativity and love inspired by the capacity of female bodies to give birth and nourish, for images of how humankind participates in the natural world suggested by reflection on the correspondences between menstrual rhythms and the moon’s waxing and waning. We seek images that affirm that the love women receive from women, from mother, sister, daughter, lover, friend, reaches as deep and is as trustworthy, necessary, and sustaining as is the love symbolized by father, brother, son, or husband. We long for images that name as authentically feminine courage, creativity, loyalty, and self-confidence, resilience, and steadfastness, capacity for clear insight, inclination for solitude, and the intensity of passion. We need images; we also need myths . . . (5)

Very few, if any, of these kinds of stories or images are in the Bible, I realized. Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests that we embrace both the God of the Exodus and God/dess as Matrix, “the source and ground of our being.” (6) Yet I found it difficult to harmonize the two when the former is so overwhelmingly present and the latter so minimally celebrated in the Church. The Inclusive Language Lectionary is one tool that was developed in order to attempt to embrace both sides of God by trying to avoid male-specific language in speaking of human beings and including female and “impersonal” images for God. (7) But for me this attempt was not sufficient, although it certainly represents a step in the right direction. The Lectionary tends to be used only in very liberal congregations and even there (in my experience) the usage is somewhat self-conscious since everyone knows what the “real” words are.