When Rita Gross visited me in Lesbos two summers ago, we spent many long hours discussing our lives and work. Rita and I met at the Conference of Women Theologians at Alverno College in June, 1971 when we were young women. We did not know it then, but our lives would continue to be intertwined through our common interests, first in the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion, and then through our work on Goddesses and feminist theology.
When we met, Rita was a convert to Judaism working on her dissertation on Australian Aboriginal women’s religious lives, and I was a Christian about to begin a dissertation on Elie Wiesel’s stories that would lead me to express my own anger at God.
In the ensuing years, Rita would leave Judaism for Buddhism, and I would leave Christianity for Goddess feminism. These decisions helped to cement a bond between us, especially as we found ourselves increasingly isolated when Christian hegemony came to the fore in the field we had helped to create. Our shared belief that women need the Goddess in order to claim the full humanity of our minds and bodies was uppermost in our conversations in the days when to make such a claim was profoundly threatening, even to other feminists.
When we discussed our religious differences, I would ask Rita why she felt the need to become part of a religious tradition that seemed to me to be patriarchal. Rita would ask me why I wanted to set myself afloat with no anchor, if traditions such as Buddhism could provide important guidance in the feminist spiritual quest.
In our conversations in the summer of 2014, Rita and I reflected on our lives and work. I can report that, despite the fact that our work has not always recognized (as it should be) in our field, we both felt very proud of what we had achieved. Rita was particularly pleased that she had been named a Lopon or Senior Teacher by a female Rinpoche. This honor went a long way towards making up for the fact that Rita (like me) had never been offered a prestigious position in the field of religion. We expressed the hope (perhaps the conviction) that one day the influence of our work would prove our academic colleagues wrong.
We probed the differences between Rita’s nondualism and my process view that a compassionate and caring deity is in relation to all finite individuals in the world. Rita conceded that human beings need symbols of deity or deities, while insisting that the notion that any separate individuals “really exist” is false. I replied that though I had become “a kind of a Buddhist” insofar as I had come a long way toward renouncing the false ego(tism) that Buddhism describes, I found a relational worldview more congruent with my experience than nondualism. Rita responded that being “a kind of a Buddhist” is not the same thing as being a real Buddhist who practices meditation every day. On these matters, we agreed to disagree.
Rita and I also discussed our disappointment that, like many other strong, intelligent, and successful women in our time, neither of us had found a life partner. We remarked that we had both created beautiful homes and gardens that nurtured us and would not want to live without animal companionship. We concluded, laughing and clicking wine glasses, that “you can’t have everything,” adding that on balance we were both quite happy with our lives.
I had not been in contact with Rita over the summer and fall of 2015. Thus I was shocked when I learned that she had a massive stroke at the end of October that left her paralyzed and unable to communicate. I was relieved to be told that she had left clear instructions that she did not want to be kept alive in such a state and thus had been returned to her home with hospice care to die in familiar surroundings and in the company of her beloved cats. This is exactly what I would want for myself.
As Rita was dying, I was informed that she had entered into an advanced meditative state that would help her to accept the impermanence of life. I said to a mutual friend that I must be a Buddhist after all, because I accept the impermanence of life and do not fear death.
As I was preparing Rita’s essay “Buddhism and Feminism: Is Female Rebirth an Obstacle?” for republication on FAR, these words leapt off the page:
What I am describing is the process of dealing with kleshas (mental states that cloud the mind) as discussed in Mahamudra teachings. One is instructed to focus on troubling emotions, such as grasping or aggression, and to look directly into them without either accepting or rejecting them, thereby liberating their enlightened clarity and energy.
Rita insists that anger is a troubling emotion that should not be repressed or expressed, but rather transformed. This insight was helpful to me when I was thinking about the angry Goddesses while writing She Who Changes. I agree with Rita that anger can and should be transformed into enlightened clarity.
Like Rita, I have for the most part transformed my anger at the injustices in the world. Yet I am still sometimes unexpectedly hooked by another troubling emotion—my disappointment that I did not find a life partner. I can be caught off-guard by casual, insensitive comments of others. One of my friends likes to tell the story of how she met her husband; after describing her own struggles, she concludes, “When you are ready, you find the right person.” “So does that mean I wasn’t ready, or didn’t try hard enough?” I am likely to respond, angrily or with tears welling up in my eyes. I don’t get the response I am looking for.
The fact that I speak in anger or tears in response to someone else’s story suggests that I need to do some work on a mental state that is clouding my mind. What would happen if I could look into the well of my own pain (most or all of it in the past) without either accepting or rejecting it? What enlightened clarity might come from this? Could I listen to my friend without letting her words trigger my own troubling emotions? This does not mean agreeing with my friend. I know that my life is not as simple as her story suggests. And when the time is right, I can tell my own story.
I wish I could email Rita now to share this insight with her. I am sure she would have understood. Blessed be the friendships that nourish and shape our lives.
Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter). Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be released in June 2016 by Fortress Press, while A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published in the spring by FAR Press. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Michael Honegger.