Widening the circle: Women's spirituality

With prayer and ritual rich in egalitarian and feminine symbolism, women's spirituality helps one half of the human race to find God in the moments of their everyday lives--from burping a baby to balancing the books.

You go guys!

If the high-profile Promise Keepers movement turned out to be typical, many women might consider men’s spirituality to be a promise worth breaking. While some more traditional women became cheerleaders for the testosterone-heavy movement that preached reclaiming masculinity through traditional gender roles, other women responded by grabbing their picket signs and protesting outside the sports stadiums where the rallies were held. But most women who are involved in women’s spirituality recognize that Promise Keepers is not representative of the men’s spirituality movement as a whole, especially among Catholic men. In fact, the majority of these women fully support the idea of men searching for their own spiritual path. “I think it’s a healthy movement,” says feminist theologian Anne Carr. “Men as well as women are looking to develop their own spiritual lives.”

That’s not to say that some women don’t grumble that there’s no need for men’s spirituality since most churches have seen male experience as normative all along. “In some ways, it’s redundant,” says Mary Hunt of WATER. “Feminist spirituality comes out of struggle, whereas men’s spirituality comes out of plenty. It’s hard to make spirituality out of plenty.”

Still, most women recognize men’s need to explore their spirituality with members of the same sex, just as women do.

“The truth is that men are often victims of hierarchy and patriarchy, too,” says Linda Haydock of Seattle’s Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center, which welcomes men to its women’s conferences. “They haven’t had the opportunity to quest for God and deeper meaning in a way they feel comfortable with.”

Rather than feel threatened, women say they believe separate, gender-specific spiritual exploration will ultimately result in a richer, more inclusive range of spiritual resources and traditions for everyone. “We can benefit from men’s way of knowing and being,” says Haydock, “and men can benefit from women’s ways of knowing and being.” In the end, men’s and women’s spirituality may not be as out of this world as Mars and Venus. “It may not be something so different that we’re looking for,” says Ellen Belle of Sophia-Online. “Something has been missing for all of us.”
—Heidi Schlumpf

IT IS GOOD FRIDAY, THE MOST SOLEMN DAY IN THE CHURCH YEAR AND, not coincidentally, one of the busiest at Wellstreams, a women’s spirituality center in Chicago. Every year the crowd grows, as word spreads about the annual Good Friday service, and this time more than 70 women are trying to squeeze chairs into a circle in the carpeted basement at the Cenacle Retreat House.

Three days later, on Easter Sunday, these women will join family and friends at churches of various denominations, but today they have chosen to remember Jesus’ suffering and death with a group that is exclusively female. The fact that it was the women who remained at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday is not lost on them.

In many ways, the three-hour service is not unlike the one taking place at the Episcopal church across the street or the Catholic parish a few blocks away. The women at Wellstreams read the Passion story; they venerate the cross; and they sing, “Were You There”—although their version is noticeably higher minus the male voices.

But the tend toward soprano singing is not all that’s different about this Good Friday commemoration. When the Passion is re-enacted, women play all the parts. Before passing around a Peruvian crucifix, they recall the stories of other “Good Friday people,” connecting the Crucifixion to modern-day oppression. Most important, the women share their own personal stories of death and rebirth.

“We go deeper than simply acknowledging the sorrow of what happened on that day so many years ago,” says Annette Cashman, who is Catholic and belongs to a suburban Chicago parish. “It’s different hearing Jesus’ words coming out of a woman’s mouth. The voluntary sharing also would not happen in the traditional church, and it makes it more meaningful.”

The intimacy of the circle provides a safe space for women to share life’s joys and pains. No one is forced to speak, and everyone listens attentively—without offering advice. During the sharing, the women lament broken relationships, express fear as they go through transitions, vent frustrations with institutions, and share insights gleaned from little, everyday moments.

Seeing the sacred in ordinary life is a hallmark of women’s spirituality, says Barbara Flynn, a Catholic laywoman who cofounded Wellstreams 10 years ago. “For too long traditional spirituality has seen God as up there and out there,” she says. “Feminine spirituality sees God’s presence right in the midst of ordinary life.”

Dismantling the dichotomy that separated “ordinary” experience from “religious” experience may be one of women’s spirituality’s most significant contributions. While the idea that all of life is holy might seem to be a “no-brainer” today, it was a relatively radical concept to many a decade ago.

“The circles of women at Wellstreams have validated what I think women have always instinctively known,” says Flynn. “Giving birth, breastfeeding a baby, holding a loved one who’s dying—these were never named as religious experiences. But for many women they have been tangible paths to the sacred, direct experiences of God. And they are very gender-specific.”

Round and round
That the chairs are arranged in a circle for Wellstreams programs is no accidental configuration. There is no pulpit, no podium. Those who facilitate programs sit in the circle with the other women. Power is shared. Among women’s spirituality aficionados, the circle has become a graphic image of mutuality.

“We are all connected to each other, and there’s no ranking or hierarchy,” explains Flynn. “The circle really holds it all, and all are taken seriously, without judgment that one person’s way of perceiving mystery is better than another.”

The circle is also a common motif at women’s spirituality gatherings sponsored by the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center (IPJC) in Seattle, which has organized two major women’s convocations and coordinates and provides resources for small, parish-based groups that serve more than 5,000 women in Oregon and Washington state.

In these circles, both large and small, the telling of women’s stories is encouraged and affirmed. “Women’s spirituality gives us a place to have a voice,” says Sister Linda Haydock, IPJC’s executive director. “Women haven’t always felt heard, even in the church. We don’t hear a women’s perspective from the pulpit. We don’t hear women’s interpretation of scripture. In women’s circles, women are given the opportunity to reflect on the tradition through a women’s lens.”

The storytelling flows from the other two elements integral to women’s spirituality: prayer and ritual. Thanks to women’s spirituality, women have reclaimed the right to create their own ways of expressing their spirituality in word and action, significantly expanding the number and variety of images and symbols used in prayer and ritual.

Feminine images of the divine and inclusive language are de rigueur, and, for many women, provide a welcome respite from the exclusively male imagery in traditional churches. More often than not, these images are taken straight from scripture or resurrected from parts of the Catholic tradition that have been buried or forgotten. Women’s spirituality also can breathe new life into traditional symbols that have become tired or lifeless.

At last year’s Northwest Catholic Women’s Convocation, the theme of “Tending the Sacred Fire” was woven throughout the two-day event—from eye-popping pyrotechnics during the opening ceremony to the simple practice of lighting a candle at each table before small-group sharing. God was also imaged as a burning flame, a sacred fire within, and a heart on fire for justice.

Other rituals remembered women throughout history who had “tended the fire.” A dramatic reenactment highlighted Lydia, Priscilla, and Phoebe from scripture; saints and mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, and Kateri Tekakwitha; and modern-day role models such as Sister Thea Bowman. A litany created for the conference held up women through the centuries, from Mary Magdalene to contemporary Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara.

Bringing this buried past to light has been one of the major achievements of women’s spirituality, says Anne Carr, professor of theology at the University of Chicago. “Women were teachers and leaders,” she says. “Women did have genuine religious experiences and were treated as full members of the church. Especially in the mystical tradition, women really exerted influence.”

Much of this is news to the uninitiated. “Often women have never heard of these people,” says Haydock. “In the resources for our parish groups, we use a lot of women in scripture, stories women have never heard because they aren’t in the lectionary. We also use a lot of feminine images of God.” What’s old is new again

Not surprisingly, such liberal use of creative imagery and rituals has been the source of much criticism and attacks on women’s spirituality. More than one critic has labeled it “New Age,” while others find it just plain weird.

While not everyone is comfortable with such a high level of personal sharing, the accusation of “New Age” isn’t accurate. If anything, women’s spirituality is “Old Age,” because many of the symbols and images have been recovered from Christianity’s early roots.

Still, it can be shocking for those whose images of the divine have been limited to “two men and a bird” to imagine God as a mother or as a woman named Sophia. That these feminine images are taken directly from the Bible or from Catholic tradition doesn’t soothe the seeming sacrilege in some people’s minds.

“It can be scary and frightening to change something you’ve learned since you were a child,” says Ellen Belle, cofounder of a new women’s spirituality Web site, SophiaOnline, which will be launched in the fall.

“When you start to ask these questions and wonder if everything you’ve been taught and believe isn’t necessarily all there is, it can feel like the carpet is being pulled out from under you,” adds Mary Jo Myers, SophiaOnline’s other cofounder.

That such exploration can also be extremely liberating is obviously why women’s spirituality continues to appeal to so many spiritually thirsty women.

Myers’ interest in women’s spirituality was prompted by her work as a psychiatrist. “It came out of wanting women to be able to develop into all they were created to be,” she says. “I saw that while religion can be an incredible nurturer for women, it can also limit women.”

For Belle, a stint as a lay missioner in Africa sealed her passion for pursuing a women’s perspective on spirituality. “After seeing the position of women there, I realized how our belief in Spirit really has practical implications,” she says. Frustrated with the inequalities in society and in faith traditions, the two Denver women educated themselves about women’s spirituality through books, workshops, lectures, and parish involvement. Now they hope their Web site will make such information accessible to all women.

“We want it to be a central gathering place to hear and share women’s voices on matters of spirit and faith,” says Myers. (For more information, contact them at info@sophiaonline.com.)

“By using the Internet, we can broaden the conversation to include other faiths and other traditions,” says Belle, who, like Myers, is Catholic. “Women’s spirituality is really about widening that circle to begin to see that there are many paths and to see the commonness of those paths.”

Reverse sexist spirituality?
Acceptance of difference, comfort with mystery and ambiguity, attentiveness to relationship—these are some of the so-called “feminine” qualities women’s spirituality honors and elevates.

“I feel that this more feminine approach that’s emerging is just what the world needs right now,” says Macrina Wieder-kehr, a Benedictine sister who leads retreats and has written five books with a women’s spirituality approach.

“The beauty of women’s spirituality is that it’s able to honor one another’s differences, instead of saying there’s only one right way,” she says. “It sees revelation as a process that is happening right now. It’s not just penned up in dogmas or doctrines. It’s freer.”

During her retreats, Wiederkehr tries to help participants see their own innate worth. “So many women have come out of experiences where they haven’t felt good about themselves,” she says. “I really feel called to help women to sense their connectedness with God. It’s always amazing when women all of a sudden experience the presence of God within themselves and realize they don’t have to look ‘out there.’”

Of course, when Wiederkehr and others refer to these feminine archetypes, they recognize that they can be expressed in both males and females. But those who favor the phrase feminine spirituality tend to believe that certain qualities and experiences are more common to women than men.

“Women do have different experiences from men. They come at things from different perspectives,” says Haydock. “Women’s spirituality is not in opposition to men’s spirituality. It’s just trying to say how we claim our own experience.”

Such a “Barbie and Ken” approach dances dangerously close to the complementarity teaching that the Vatican uses to keep women in traditional roles and out of ordained ministry, says Mary Hunt, a cofounder of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual), a feminist educational organization that provides information and resources on spiritual and social justice issues.

“‘Feminine’ spirituality just reinforces the dubious distinction between male and female persons,” says Hunt. “It seems to us to be contributing to the problem.”

WATER prefers the term “feminist spirituality,” which implies both a political as well as a religious/spiritual agenda. “There’s an explicit connection to economic and social justice,” Hunt says. “To call a spirituality that doesn’t do that feminist is a misnomer.” With that definition, feminist spirituality is not limited to women. “The issue is not gender; it’s how do we, as women and men, create a just and equitable society,” she says. “What we’re talking about is power, and spirituality has power: it’s the power of ideas and what motivates people to make choices in their lives. I want to see that power shared.”

Mainstream on the margins
Are women’s spirituality and Catholicism mutually exclusive? It depends on whom you ask. Many women, including Hunt, say they can pursue their spiritual paths as feminists without rejecting religious institutions they still clearly label as sexist, including the Catholic Church.

“One of the characteristics of women’s spirituality is a both/and approach,” Hunt says. “People don’t have to say, ‘I’m this; I’m not that.’ I’m a feminist Catholic, and I’m happy to call myself Catholic. This is what Catholic looks like.”

Wiederkehr agrees: “It doesn’t have to be either/or,” she says. “I’m very rooted in the church. But I need more; I need another kind of church. And this is church, too.”

The several thousand women (and a few men) who attend the convocations sponsored by the IPJC run the gamut of church connection, says Haydock. “The vast majority of people are women who identify themselves as Catholic, participate in the Catholic Church, and are looking and longing for ways to be alive and transformed in terms of their own experience and their experience of the church.”

Whether they find that on a weekly basis at their parish depends on their ZIP code. “Within some church and parish structures, people are finding what they need in terms of women’s and men’s spirituality,” Haydock says. “In other places, there’s a real drought. In some ways, it’s finding its way into the mainstream. But there are major pockets of resistance.”

While some say women’s spirituality is anything but mainstream, those with a long view see some movement. “I think it’s definitely become more mainstream,” says Flynn of Wellstreams. “It was always looked at as very radical when we began 10 years ago.”

In fact, some Catholic women and men may be exposed to women’s spirituality without even knowing it. Retreats, talks, and workshops sponsored by parishes or even by dioceses often feature presenters who take a women’s spirituality approach without labeling them as such. And that’s not to mention that women have been meeting in small groups and sharing stories of their lives and their spiritual musings for centuries. They were just disguised as sewing or quilting circles, or mom’s groups, or bridge club.

Although today’s participants in women’s spirituality organizations do push the boundaries, most of them maintain respect for the church’s 2,000-year-old tradition. “We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Myers of Sophia-Online. “But in every age we have to reinvent, reclaim, and reimagine it.”

Flynn says she and her fellow codirector, who is a nun, also have a healthy respect for the tradition. “We’ve always tried to hold the tradition, which we value so much, but expand it by bringing women out of the shadows and illuminating what’s been hidden.”

About half of the women who come to Wellstreams remain connected to institutional churches, Flynn estimates. Those who do often take what they’ve experienced in the circle back to their parishes.

“There’s definitely an advocacy role. They get the support here to go out into the world,” she says. “We can’t stay myopic. We have to get out there and name what we need for ourselves.

“I think women’s spirituality is needed now more than ever,” she adds. “We’re far from finished.”

Heidi Schlumpf is the managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine. This article appeared in the April 2002 (Volume 67, Number 4) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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