I often say I am a theologian who is uncomfortable with prayer and does not have a relationship with God. What I mean is that I am still trying to figure out how I understand the divine; conventional prayers feel exclusionary and that is not something I want to participate in. Instead, I believe there is so much more to these concepts than traditional theology offers.
I find comfort in Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Maria Goretti, my grandmothers, and my own mother — in communing with the saints. I feel connected to them. I know what it means to be a woman, a mother, a daughter, and to live in a misogynistic world. Growing up with patriarchal imagery of God continues to influence my perceptions about the divine and I have not yet found a way to develop a sacred relationship with a being I have struggled to view as anything other than oppressive. I am on a journey, and one that often gets pushed to the side in favor of teaching, grading, parenting, writing, cooking, cleaning, laundry…and when I can get it, sleep.
It seems that my nine-year old daughter is also on a journey and having her first crisis of faith. She has come to me with many questions about God lately. Initially she asked if God is real and how we can know. Then she moved on to other questions…and then assumptions. Last week, Sarah came home from school and told me that God is a white man. My heart broke a little. I asked her why she thought that and she responded, “Haven’t you seen all the pictures of God? Duh.”
Of all the conversations we have had about God, gender, race, power, etc., she is just far too young to grasp it all. Sarah is a deep critical thinker for her young age; nonetheless, in trying to speak honestly to her, it seems I’ve only confused her more.
Exploring interpretations of God is something I do in class quite regularly and every semester. But Sarah’s curiosity and my failure to offer a comprehensible explanation encouraged me to reconsider the portrayals I have been reliant on.
Like with many things, I was becoming desensitized to what I was doing, teaching. My own loss of connection to God was spilling over and impacting the people around me. Hence, I set out to spend a few hours — that turned into days— organizing imagery that can be viewed as representing the divine. I continued to explore depictions that challenge power structures, but also looked for quotes, nature, sound waves, brain waves, and other reflections of the sacred within our world.
Here is what I came up with (forgive my amateurish iMovie skills):
As I worked on this project, I found myself deeply engaged in the experience. It occurred to me that we are so busy focusing on God’s characteristics, we’ve missed out on the fact that the divine is not simply a noun. Mary Daly begs the question, “Why not a verb?” Can it be that God is actually encompassed in our momentary lived experiences and actions and we have simply failed to recognize it?
I shared the video with Sarah and delighted in watching her take in the different images and feel embraced by the music. With her eyes wide and inquisitive she asked, “Is this how I can understand God, the way I feel right now?” I nodded and for a brief moment, I felt God too.
It is easy to bury the things that are important to us in favor of what we deem “responsibility.” But in doing so, we not only separate ourselves from the sacred — what ever that means to you — but also from the true meaning of our own relationships and experiences.
I will always feel connected to saintly women, that is an important part of who I am and something I hope to pass on to Sarah. This said, I’m working on being more mindful. It is not an easy task for me. But “knowing” God is not something I want to keep pushing to the side. Nor do I want my daughter to be without my guidance or lost in her own journey.
Without Sarah, I might keep wading through life blindly. But, I don’t want to be the person who is irritated by getting wet in a storm; I want to be the person who feels the rain. And so my journey continues.
My hope is that you might have thoughts or experiences you want to share in the comments. I look forward to an open dialogue.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of FeminismAndReligion.com. She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for peace building and spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.