I was writing this blog post on the same day that Rosemary Radford Ruether died, receiving the news during my writing process. The timing of that still has me feeling something I cannot yet express…
One of the most meaningful concepts I learned very early on from my education in feminist theology was “hearing to speech,” from Nelle Morton. I have written about this before, sharing that at times when I have struggled with my academic writing, I try to imagine that I am writing to my peer group, which helps open the path because not only are they a trusted circle of friends that I know loves me deeply, but they are friends who hear me into speech (and in that way, to writing, as well).
Nelle Morton coined this feminist principle of “hearing to speech.”  Morton’s new understanding of hearing and speaking came to her while she was with a group of women who gathered to tell their stories. As one woman shared her story – a story which at times reached points of excruciating pain – no one moved or interrupted, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. At the end, when the woman finally finished, she said, “You heard me. You heard me all the way – I have the strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.”
What Morton was witnessing was a depth hearing, a kind of hearing that engages the whole self to the point of holding ones breath in order to allow the coherence of the story to form and come together. This kind of hearing evokes “a new speech – a new creation” – it enables one to be heard to ones own story, which then creates the possibility for new imagining, an imagining that contributes to the mutual empowerment and transformation of both hearer and speaker.
There is a willingness to wait that is required in this kind of hearing; to wait for the other to find their words and resist any impulse to jump in to fill in the blanks or offer them words. The listener is waiting, hearing, and witnessing until that something in process takes form and comes into being.
Listening all the way is a lesson that has come back to me as I try to accompany my mom in her grief.
I’ve written two blog posts about losing my dad and the grieving process, but another part I haven’t written about is the experience of being a witness to my mom’s grief. There have been a few times now that I have gotten to be there for her as she let herself express her pain in its devastating reality. Instances when she has wept and wept as she writhed in desperation and could hardly breath. Listening to that pain, being present, when someone you love is hurting like that is just so tough – everything in me wanted to be able to make it go away – to be able to rescue her.
At first, I was able to stay steady, but as I would continue to witness the magnitude of her pain and saw how it just wouldn’t let up (in that moment), it got harder and harder not to want to just DO something. Everything in me wanted to interrupt, to make it stop, to have it not be true. And the only thing that kept me from acting on that impulse was knowing that my attempts would not actually accomplish that, but would only interrupt her process. I knew I had to “just” stay and wait if I really wanted to be there for her and hear her all the way.
And, it is just like Morton describes the “hearing into speech” moment – there is a new speech, a new creation that follows. With my mon, when she (we) got to the other side, I got to also witness the lightness that followed, the relief she experienced after the flow of her tears. Sometimes it has been a bodily lightness, a physical weight she feels lifted, and other times it has been a clarity of thought – a realization of why she was feeling so emotionally heavy and unable to tolerate any stimuli (recently, for example, it was the nearness of my dad’s upcoming birthday).
The other feminist principle that has helped me these days, which is part of the very logic of hearing another to speech, is the affirmation that whatever divinity exists, whatever ground of being, force of life, Ultimate Intimate Reality we can appeal to or draw on, already exists within us and we have direct access to it. The process of hearing another into speech, of listening to them all the way, is to get to witness as another connects to their source; their struggle for life, for strength and power to keep on in the midst of suffering. For me it has been a privilege to be able to be with my mom through these kinds of moments. And it is a gift that if we’re lucky enough to receive, makes all the difference.
It was as I was at the park writing this blog post on Saturday, May 21, that I received the message from Gina Messina (FAR co-founder) that Rosemary Radford Ruether had just died earlier that hour. Rosemary supported our FAR project from the very start, offering one of the earliest essays published here, “What is Feminism and Why Should We Do It?” – published just 10 days after our very first post. I am grateful for Rosemary and the support she gave this project, willing to show up for us from the very start.
Rest in peace Rosemary Radford Ruether. We are grateful for you and will honor you by continuing the work. Rage on and Bright Blessings!
The park I was at while I was writing this post is in the middle of the city. I go there to walk an incline – often reading and sometimes voice-recording a draft of something I’m writing. This day, I must have seen 15 to 20 little critters – rabbits, squirrels, that sort of critter – running across the path before me, or just hanging out along the edges of the path eating grass, not yet very afraid of me (pictures included in the post here). This was more little critters than I had seen in the many weeks since I’ve been going there, but then I realized that it’s that time of year – spring, when new life is born. In that moment, between the news of death and the writing of grief, I was very visibly reminded by the critters that the circle of life continues, and I am grateful.
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge. Along with Gina Messina, she is co-editor of the volume Women Religion Revolution (FSR Books, 2017). She most recently co-edited The Emerging Church, Millennials, and Religion: Volume 2 (Cascade Books, 2022) with Terry Shoemaker and Rachel C. Schneider. She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she was also born and raised.