Exhaustion and Inspiration by Ivy Helman

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Wading in the waters of Prince Edward Island.

Change takes time.  If society takes years to change, religious institutions seem to take decades, maybe centuries.  That ubiquitous intersection of religion and feminism seems neck high in mud and muck.  Some religious institutions claim divine inspiration for keeping their chins down, jaws clenched and footings strongly moored in damaging sexist ideologies.  This is wrong.  But I’m tired.  I feel as if the feminist movement is draining too much out of me for not enough change.

Perhaps an example will clarify.  This Tuesday I taught the first session of a six-week long summer course entitled, “Theology through Women’s Eyes.”  An odd title that could mean many things, right?  It does not even imply a feminist approach to religion and the college’s course description did not either.  I learned from my department’s chair that the last professor to have taught the class shied away from the course having any specific reference to feminism as she was a practicing Catholic theologian and she worried about the effects of that association for her professional career at Catholic universities.

Are you kidding? We are stuck there?  Still?  I personally know a great number of Catholics in academia and outside of it who wear their feminism proudly like Margaret Farley, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Rosemary Radford Ruether to name just a few.  Obviously, not everyone does.  Yet, when religious institutions threaten to and actually excommunicate those who dissent from their teachings, I can see genuine issues with being an “out,” so to speak, feminist.  At the same time, I’ve always thought that the minute someone censures me I’m finally doing something right.  I’m being heard by my intended audience.  Thank G-d, right?  Those are the people who need to listen anyway.  That is my measure of success.

Tuesday evening, I asked the class if they’d have difficulties referring to G-d as She.  A good number admitted they would.  Many acknowledged that G-d as He was how they were raised to think of and relate to G-d even if fundamentally they believed G-d to be genderless or larger than gendered categories.  Some of them had nothing to say.  No opinion.  At all.  I’m stunned that we continue to have the same conversations at the intersection of feminism and religion we did roughly ten years ago while I was in the middle of my Ph.D, had just started teaching, when the majority of my current students were 8 to 12 years-old.  Have we hit a brick wall and are just talking to each other?  Feminist to feminist?  Nodding our heads, occasionally disagreeing, but not, significantly, reaching those who really need to hear us?  Please tell me it’s not so.

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PEI sand dunes

After the silence, I took the class through an exercise to consider what some of the issues with only imagining G-d in male and masculine terms might be.  (Did I fail to mention that my “Theology through Women’s Eyes” is unapologetically and fiercely feminist?)  From issues of power and authority to women’s moral autonomy and decision-making ability, we saw how imagining G-d as male-only greatly affects women’s lives.  Religious institutions that adhere closely to male-only imagery fight in the public sphere for control over women’s sexuality, deny women’s access to leadership roles and condemn and excommunicate those who would disagree with them.  Those same institutions turn deaf when we confront their sexist ways often trying to silence our efforts to speak truth to power.  As I’ve already mentioned, I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, encountering the same kind of religious education, observing colleagues afraid to associate themselves with the movement for fear of reprisal and revisiting the same concerns in the classroom year after year.  Are we having the desired effect?

Last week, I traveled up to Prince Edward Island, the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery who wrote the Anne of Green Gables books inspiring millions of people.  I think I only ever read one of her books.  Yet, on the island, I learned so much about her life and writings and visited the places she and her fictional Anne walked.

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PEI’s beautiful red roads

On a sign by what once was her childhood home, a plaque read: “It has always seemed to me…that, amid all of the commonplace of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty.  Between it and me hung only a thin veil.  I could never quite draw it aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting world beyond – only a glimpse, but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”  I found Montgomery’s words to be true.  There is an awe-inspiring beauty there.  In fact, I felt a renewing energy in the breathtaking landscape of red sand, purple, pink and white lupins, strong winds and beautiful blue seas.  As I waded in the chilly Atlantic waters, I watched the jellyfish swim by.  I found solace on those Green Gable Shores.  I reconnected with myself, with the natural world and the rhythms of life all by learning about her.  Long dead, she took me to another world and I found in her a kindred spirit, as her Anne often says.  My own inspiration reawoke on her island and through her writings I felt better.

This got me thinking about my exhaustion with feminist principles and religious ideology.  Montgomery’s writings were about more than the breath-taking beauty of one place.  The above mentioned quote is a metaphor for the world I strive to create.  I can see a veil between this and a better world, the ideal world, a beautiful feminist world.  It’s not that far away.  There are times, places and events that allow me to catch a glimpse of this ideal world.  It’s like the mystical veil the Zohar mentions

The Lupins

The Lupins

between us and G-d.  It is there I live, in the anticipation of that collective time when the veil is gone.  Here, I’m grounded, my strength renewed.  Another world is possible.  It’s not even that far away.

Thank you Prince Edward Island for a chance to relax and Lucy Maud Montgomery for inspiring me to continue to work to remove the veil between this world and a much better one.

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).



Categories: Catholic Church, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Fiction, Foremothers, General, God-talk, Nature

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Oh oh oh. And would those be the same questions some of us were asking before you were born? Siggghhh. I usually shy away from saying that women are our own worst enemies. But too often we go along in order to get along, as I suspect your students have been doing all their lives. And they are not entirely wrong. The world does come tumbling down when women tell the truth about our lives.

    I saw Anne of Green Gables on tv 10 or 12 years ago and bought the whole series and read them for the first time. Where were they when I was growing up. I seem to recall a strong theme of nature mysticism (outside the church if I remember correctly) in them. I recommend the books to every girl and woman.

    Why are great women writers considered “minor” authors.

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  2. Prince Edward Island, yes, another world!

    The problem, as I see it, is a theology stuck in idolatry. Whether we look at god as male, female or androgyne, a top-down relational theology of god to humanity IS THE PROBLEM we are most afraid to confront.

    There simply is no god UP and OVER us. Genuine Love has no need or desire for this type of relationship. Yet we persist in promoting that idol god because it gives us some semblance of security and certainty.

    “…the mystical veil the Zohar mentions’…could it be a “separate-yet-one with” theology which helps us to see that G-d is the intercourse and interplay between between ego (sacred separateness) and spirit (holy oneness)
    …that we likewise are made in THIS relational image of G-d?
    …that G-d is no more a fixed entity than we are
    …that we are no more fixed entities than G-d is.

    You might enjoy GOD GOING ROGUE at sisterlea.wordpress.com.

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  3. The Anne books were some of my very favorites as a girl. Loved them. Still use the phrase “kindred spirits” which came from Anne. Loved the tv miniseries too. Have a tiny Anne doll on my bookshelf right now (was my grandma’s from her own trip to PEI).

    Read this article last year and found validation in the acknowledgement of the feminist undercurrent I must have sensed all those years ago:

    “Narrative perspective, as much as plot or character, can shape a text’s social outlook. And through their lyrical prose, the Anne books offer up the daily experiences of rural women — baking a cake, hosting a tea, gossiping with a friend — as worthy subjects of our best language and closest attention. As such, they are profoundly feminist texts, even if they don’t comply with a standard narrative of “empowerment,” because they insist that the lived experience of women matters, across class and geography and age…” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/ten-things-i-learned-from-loving-anne-of-green-gables)

    Enjoyed your post, Ivy, though sad at the shying away from feminist spirituality in academia you also experience.

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  4. Thanks for the post, loved the pics of the Princely Isle and the reminder of childhood “Anne” books.

    Keep taking those nature walks when the weight of this world gets too heavy.

    I would not recommend switching your field of study to geology.

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  5. I’m so glad you found renewal on PEI. We all need to breathe in, so we can breathe out again. We all need to renew in order to continue our activism.

    For feminists, life often seems to force us to see things in confrontational terms. But often, I find that I can shift that perspective, so I see things more in terms of others losing out. The Catholic professor you speak of seems to me to lose out when it comes to her own integrity, to living life in synch with her values. She has to hide who she is, which is never a good thing. And our society loses out on all those wonderful women’s perspectives. It’s sad for society, but not for those of us who have feminist integrity and speak out. We reap the wisdom that comes from living our lives openly and with the joy of knowing we are speaking our truth. Keep on keeping on, Ivy!

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  6. You have to wonder how women are still afraid of women’s liberation. I think that is the better phrase. If I want inspiration or power, I hang within radical lesbian feminist worlds or radical lesbian separatist worlds. I’m tired of having these conversations with straight women, who simply still want to have cake and eat it too I guess. I love the women who are sheer power, who are now in their 60s, who stood their ground eons ago refusing men, refusing them utterly, never marrying them, never having sex with them, never, and when I’m with these women I feel so alive, so powerful, so loved. That is the true source for me, and I look forward to a time when radical lesbians everywhere come together to celebrate those of us who refused to kow tow, who stayed completely and fanatically loyal to the dream of true lesbian sisterhood.

    I kind of think it is a waste of time for women to still engage patriarchy within theology, the same boring silences, the same conversations, when there is such eccstatic happiness out there. Anne of Green Gables might have had a real clue to this!

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  7. Considering the top-down authority and domination over-all approach to a term like God, I think it is a good thing that we can’t quite fit a feminine persona into that. We need a better word or idea for the single, organizing principle of the universe. But we already have a name for that, and and just as God is instinctively male, it is instinctively female — aka Nature.

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  8. Great post, Ivy! I love PEI and LM Montgomery! Your post is also thought-provoking and it is sad that the professor feels constrained to hide her feminism. Today my minister invited me to give a sermon. I recently graduated from seminary, but with a MA and not a Master’s of Divinity. I told him no and that I hadn’t even taken any courses on homiletics, etc. but then he said it didn’t have to be a sermon, and he suggested that instead I give a talk based on a paper I wrote on the Devotion of Mary and her connection to the Mother Goddess. I told him I’d consider it. I later decided I wouldn’t do it, but after reading your post I think I should give the talk, although I’m not comfortable speaking in public. Still I should be true to myself and my beliefs and it certainly would be a thought-provoking talk, at least I hope so!

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  9. I think one of the reasons for what appears to be slow progress is that imagery depicting womens’ symbolism ( Crete ) was gradually taken over by patriarchal symbolism. So while the symbols remain similar over millennia their meanings change. For example an image of a column with blood in the Theran frescos allude to springtime rituals and features young women, there were triple pillar shrines (Knossos) and the column of Hecate. The image of the pillar/tree as a symbolic language around the Mediterranean later related to dying male gods, demigods and saints e.g. St Sebastian and the encoded meaning had changed.

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