Exe(o)rcising the Spirit by Natalie Weaver


Natalie editedWhy bother? It’s a legitimate question.  My oldest son, almost 12, announced that he is depressed.  He’s got good reasons for it, so I don’t try to talk him out of it.  My youngest, almost 8, told me yesterday that life was simpler when he was in my belly.  Now, he says school is torture.  They won’t just teach something and move on.  They have to do “activities,” he says, he’s onto the racket that is known as busy work.

I spoke with an aunt, a cancer survivor, whose progress is steadily monitored.  Life, it seems, has become about watching and waiting rather than living.  There’s not so much to look forward to, she says wistfully, once you get to a certain age.  My friend called in distress.  Not one area of life – not work, not kids, not household, not romance – was untouched by significant stress. She said that she could understand how people are okay with their kids moving out.  There is a time, she observed baldly, when it will be alright to die.  She said, I’m tired.

What do we do with fatigue that becomes soul deep?  In my own case, I used to move it around from one place to another, focusing on what I could do as a remedy for the things I could not change.  What I have come to realize, though, is that we run out of storage space eventually.  There’s no place to hide from this – this question – of meaning or meaninglessness.  When I try to assess and work out what’s on my mind, that is, when I feel the fatigue of meaning, I realize that I am dealing with something spiritual in nature.

It’s plain as day, of course, when you give it a second’s thought.  But, at first blush, it is not always immediately self-evident that the angry person mouthing “bitch” at me in the crowded parking lot or my frustration at my kids not responding to my third request, were and are, at the root, theological problems.  Such things were and are, the things that push the self toward the precipice of spiritual demise.

Why bother, I wonder, when the handsome and seemingly happy couple in line in front of me to see Santa with their little boy turns to me hostilely and threatens me should my own eager child accidentally bump into them again.  As I stand on, dazed, still looking at them with something of a smiling admiration on my face, trying to understand what I have just heard, I am yelled down for the look on my face.  What is this world, I wonder, while my own joy begins to shift into an anger that I am now tasked with suppressing and rationalizing?

The more I recognize myself in this place, especially as a woman, the more I understand that traditional theology, and specifically traditional Christian doctrine of God, has more or less failed to help me here.  It has failed to provide me, specifically as a woman, an adequate way of dealing with the inevitable fatigue of a life lived long enough.  What do I mean by this?  I find that I have internalized a distorted sense of value and more importantly a distorted sense of self in relationship to others.

In particular, the idea of servanthood, even service as leadership, can be an infectious and distorting delusion whereby one inclines oneself simply to be taken advantage of by others.  This happens in family life, work, and even in volunteerism (especially at the Church).  Likewise, the insistence on joy, hope, resurrection, loving the neighbor, the new day yet to come – these can become woefully burdensome, even to the very young, because such spiritual dispositions stifle the capacity to experience–honestly and without self-critique–anger, fear, boredom, and disappointment.

As a woman, I find myself to be particularly susceptible to spiritual instruction about service, docility, duty, and self-gift, in ways that I increasingly come to understand are not genuinely relationally intelligent or spiritually wholesome: they are gendered norms for desirable social being.  Of course, I know all this stuff as theory.  I have for two decades.  But, now, now I know it for myself, in my skin, and that is a heavy transition in the soul.

I’m not sure I agree that religion the opiate of the masses, but I do agree that one of the foremost reasons people create religion as a framework for interpreting life is that they are confronted with the profound task of meaning-making out of what often seems to be the unfathomable reach of meaninglessness.  Theology is a response to that, as is worship.  The older or perhaps wiser or perhaps more reckless I get, the more I understand that is incumbent on each of us to be able to think theologically in ways that are authentic and true to our own experiences and insights.

It is perhaps for these reasons that I have been expanding my own capacity for prayer and ritual by participating in alternative spaces of worship, like the sweat lodge, as well as creating my own, as I have been over the past several on New Year’s Eves, with the invention of a symbolic meal, a structured memorial for the deceased, readings, and a fire ritual at midnight.  I feel at times like a syncretistic pagan wannabe, but I set those self-critiques aside in the knowledge that I am exe(o)rcising the spirit.

That phrase, “exe(o)rcising the spirit,” feels laden, and I have yet to unpack its full import, but I know it means both ridding myself of what does not work and claiming the authority to honor what does in ways that are sacramental and meaningful to me and to those in my community of intimates.

Perhaps the best way that I alternatively theologize is through creative writing, through the beckonings of theopoesis, where I find I can speak without the impositions of structure in the quasi-grammarless realm of experiential knowing.  It is here that I have discovered freedom to disagree and complain as well as to integrate and praise in a voice that talks to God in earnest, as though God were listening.  In preparation, for a solstice sweat, this is what I had to say.

These sides are not

sharp antagonisms

that bring to points

their points of view

but a pond’s surface

under moonlight,

swirling like mercury,

beneath which minnows,

fluid, do

their works of

harmonious disruption.

 

So, let my prayer be not

please,

for, I fear

I have been

an ungrateful guest.

Sojourning pilgrim,

refugee,

all this life, all will be,

a lesson in how to say

thank you.

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books includeMarriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings

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8 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing your difficult times. I am not sure if you chose your words precisely or not in the first sentence, but having suffered depression myself, I have learned that underneath depression there is anger or sadness or both. Your son needs to get in touch with those emotions if he has not already. Maybe you are already helping him with that. Take care. And allow yourself to get in touch with those feelings too! Anger and sadness are real feelings, but depression is a state no one should have to stay in.

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  2. Dear Natalie
    As I read your post I felt for you – with you – in your exploration of fatigue and meaninglessness – and honour your reflection and the creativity springing from that.
    Being able to listen to our own wisdoms seems to me to be a source of possibility, including the possibility of hope, even in and for the dark times.
    May you and your precious children find ways of sitting with, living through, and eventually going beyond the distress in ways that bring you relief and even moments of joy.
    Thank you for sharing some of your ways of managing and for your beautiful writing – I love those minnows of harmonious disruption
    Be well Natalie and find rest for your lovely self
    Margaret

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  3. This is a moving and heartbreakingly honest essay. I applaud your courage to write it. Creating meaningful lives means, to me, activating the powers of place and grace to help me move through this life. I am 72 and I guess I am one of those people who has needed spiritual assistance all my life. Finding Christianity meaningless and furious that I had been duped for so long, I finally discovered eco-feminism, and at the same time had been researching world mythology/and the cultures of the Native American peoples whose roots I share. What came out of all this was an original practice that continues today. I follow an agricultural calendar (I am a naturalist) and write each of my own rituals for the points of the year (Celtic calendar) and include a full moon ritual each month. I have been doing this so long that my dreams often direct the process. Initially I celebrated the solstices and equinoxes with others but those feminist -oriented celebrations gradually disappeared and then I continued on my own…This is a way of life that keeps me in touch with Nature and the seasonal rounds and because it is authentic I often have unusual experiences that remind me that “the great mystery” is not just inside me but all around me.

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  4. “What do we do with fatigue that becomes soul deep?”
    What a good question Natalie. I’m somewhat surprised and pained by the level of anger, nastiness and violence in society today. I guess my question is “how do I prevent it taking root in me or becoming “soul deep”. I confess that my immediate reaction is to give the offender “the finger”. But like you I am praying and creating rituals and talking to friends and blocking some people on Facebook. (that’s the easy one!) I think I’m trying to become like the minnow in your wonderful verse:

    “……a pond’s surface
    under moonlight,
    swirling like mercury,
    beneath which minnows,
    fluid, do
    their works of
    harmonious disruption.”

    If it’s OK with you I’ll just save that whole poem and use it for a screen background.

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  5. Thank you a million times over. Why such raw honestly, set in this meaningful and gorgeous spiritual context, is so rare is a wonder. This is a post that will bring much healing to me as I read it again and again. I feel very connected to what you say. Thank you for the courage and brilliance to put it out in the world for the healing of others. Such important theology you are doing here.

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  6. I very much enjoyed reading this post and was tempted to click “follow”. Had I not just closed the door on a mentally and emotionally destructive 3 year journey of unpacking religious theology, I would be all over this. Perhaps had I read your work then, I would not be where I am now. Keep up the good work. I appreciate your sentiments.

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  7. Hi Natalie —

    My computer wouldn’t connect me to the FAR site yesterday or the day before. I don’t know why. But when I read your post on email (the whole thing was there two days go), I was profoundly moved. And today, I’m moved as well, but also worried about you. I may be wrong, but whenever I start asking about the meaning of life, I’m on the verge of depression. And I almost always get depressed when I feel overwhelmed. And indifference (“why bother”) is almost the definition of depression for me. But I really was concerned when I read your phrase “a way of dealing with a life lived long enough.” That can be read two different ways, and the second one is scary to me. So…ignore what I have to say if I’m way off the mark.

    I think you’re exactly on the right path when you talk about internalizing a distorted sense of self in relationship to others. The entire servant/”helpmeet” concept doesn’t just give us women too much to accomplish on any given day, but also makes the work secondary to whatever the other person, usually male, is doing. Until your post I hadn’t heard of service leadership. But after looking it up on the internet, I think Valerie Saiving would agree with me when I say that service leadership seems like a good idea for the many men who have internalized the assertive/aggressive ideals of masculinity, but a bad idea for women, who have internalized self-effacement, deference, and second-class status as a feminine ideal. Caring doesn’t mean that we come second (or last). It also means caring for ourselves.

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re expanding your prayer and ritual into areas that feel authentic to you. As you indicate, some internalized voice is calling you a “syncretistic pagan wannabe” to keep you from that authenticity. Your poem is amazing, as everyone before me has pointed out. But it still contains a dualism — no longer so “pointed” — between please and thank you. Maybe it would be all right to ask for what you need and want as well as express your gratitude for what you have in your life. I think when the minnows finish their work of harmonious disruption, even that dualism will disappear.

    I hope this comment isn’t terribly presumptuous of me. Please forgive me if it is. I wrote it because I was concerned for your welfare.

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  8. I forgot to add yesterday that petitionary prayer seems to have a bad name among progressives. I understand this when it’s the extreme “gimme, gimme” of the prosperity gospel. But I believe that asking in prayer for what you need and want is usually a good thing. For me it connects me on a daily basis with the 3 most important goddesses in my personal pantheon. It reminds me that often I can’t do things all by myself, something that’s very important in this pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps environment. And for instance when I’m really sick or hurting, it helps me be a better person for those around me.

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