Women’s History Month: Painting and Empowering Adolescent Girls by Angela Yarber

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Holy Women Icons Project is excited to launch Revolutionary Girls, a new program seeking to empower marginalized adolescent girls by telling the stories of revolutionary women through art, writing, and discussion. Partnering with local schools and other non-profit organizations in the Puna District of Hawai’i County, we are creating a curriculum that features often overlooked historical and mythological women whose lives, legends, and legacies embody empowerment, resilience, and emotional intelligence that can embolden adolescent girls to become socially aware revolutionary leaders.

Research shows that girls’ self-esteem plummets in early adolescence, due in part to unrealistic body images in media and casual (or even overt) sexism from parents, teachers, and peers. Our Revolutionary Girls project aims to counter these negative influences by offering girls aged 11-15 a space of empowerment. Prior to adolescence, many girls believe they are as smart, strong, and capable of leadership as boys. At the onset of puberty, girls are often taught that their only value is in their appearance, and that they are not as capable or valuable as men and boys. Simultaneously, girls are exposed primarily to the histories and myths of men in power while in the classroom, the revolutionary lives, legends, and legacies of countless revolutionary women altogether absent from their textbooks and lessons. Continue reading “Women’s History Month: Painting and Empowering Adolescent Girls by Angela Yarber”

Toil and Trouble (Part 1) by Barbara Ardinger

…and Ella can’t remember the last real meal she had. After supper with the refugees in the witch’s house, she and the witch put their heads together to begin making significant plans. She’s also been meeting all the refugees who now live on the witch’s farm. She knows first-hand why these people fled the capital and the other cities. “Oh, lordy, yes,” she says. “I used to know all the important people. My dear sisters and I went to all the big events, ate the finest cuisine—” suddenly remembering where she is, she looks down at the table “—oh, dear, but I don’t mean to criticize your cuisine.”

The ravens, all perched on the backs of chairs look straight at her. “Good food, this,” says Kahlil, “except these girls don’t serve eyeballs.” “Stop that,” Domina whispers (if ravens can be said to whisper). “Don’t be so picky. Everybody here gets enough to eat.”

Ella, who is more used to cats and dogs and the occasional parakeet than to ravens, blinks and continues. “I wish I knew where my sisters are now. Thanks to our ‘relationships’ with the princes, we were High Society and—”

Continue reading “Toil and Trouble (Part 1) by Barbara Ardinger”

Princess Peach from The Goddess Project: Made in Her Image by Colette Numajiri

Toy stores and department store aisles are decked with pink and purple princess paraphernalia. Disney has provided an array of princesses for little girls to choose their birthday party or bedroom decor from. But as we all know, there’s a deeper secret hidden in the FAIRY TALES that high powered media execs have made their fortunes on: THE GODDESS.

Every hero’s tale, be it in video games or romantic movies sets out to do one thing: SAVE THE PRINCESS.  When I was a child I saved Her myself on my little Nintendo system never knowing why She was in trouble in the first place. And was I the only one who ever wondered why NONE of the PRINCESSES HAD MOTHERS!?

In the early Centuries during the Christianization of Europe, Pagans (which means “people of the land”) hid truths right under the nose of the newly forming Christian Church in their folklore, games and children’s rhymes to avoid being burnt at the stake. These simple people tried to covertly keep the Wisdom of the Sacred Feminine that they’d been honoring since the beginning of time, ALIVE.

Continue reading “Princess Peach from The Goddess Project: Made in Her Image by Colette Numajiri”

A Rescue Remedy, Part 2 by Barbara Ardinger

The handsome but uncharming prince having been magicked, the witch and her coconspirators know it’s time to focus on finding Ella. The witch looks around the table.

“Mrs. Janedoe and Mrs. Worthington,” she says, “you are two of our most highly experienced sauceresses…I mean sorceresses. Mrs. Bezukhov, you are also a woman of great, if temporarily diminished, power. Let us work together and see what we can do. Surely when people of good will work together they can raise energy that leads to positive results. Yes?” She looks around. “Please come up to my study.” The ravens of course know they are members of this ad hoc coven, and Mrs. Bezukhov goes out to her little room (actually a stall) in the barn to fetch her old scrying stone.

“Now,” says the witch, “we need to find out where Ella is and—”

“Before that,” says Kahlil, the prophetic raven, “we gotta fly that…er…sausage to the city ’n’ drop it on that lousy prince and hit ’im where it’ll do the most good. Make sure he got the message, doncha know. I got a new buddy who’ll fly with us.” He waves a wing at the window and another raven flies in. “This’s Icarus.” The new raven bows. “Despite his name, he’s a good flyer ’n’ he knows the safest routes to the capital and the bestest ways to get around the city.” Kahlil shows the bagged sausage to Icarus, who studies it and shakes his head like he’s just been attacked by a million fleas. “Okay,” says Kahlil, “youse girls just keep an eye on us in that there scrying stone.” He starts to rise from the table, but Mrs. Worthington stops him.

Continue reading “A Rescue Remedy, Part 2 by Barbara Ardinger”

In Light of Women by Mary Jane Miller

Why are so few women mentioned in the great feast days like Pentecost, the Last Supper, the Baptism of Christ, etc.? God made no commandment that they not be included.
Inquisitive women like myself have always been around Christ listening to His message. There they were, cooking and cleaning at the Last Supper, at the wedding at Canon and when He fed the five thousand. When Christ invited the children to come to him, you can be sure the mothers were there, too.
Beginning as early as the fourth century the dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to thwart the ascendant positions for women within the religious hierarchy and in christian societies in general. Yet, the underlying teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, – all call for the proper and equitable treatment of God’s children. Without a doubt, God and Christ love all of humankind with no gender bias. When women listen to scripture we naturally fill in the gap, or adjust the gap knowing in our hearts and souls, we are not inferior to men.

Continue reading “In Light of Women by Mary Jane Miller”

A Rescue Remedy, Part I by Barbara Ardinger

A year, now. It has been a full year since the phony election that put El Presidente in the Golden Office. A year since people began leaving the capital and the nation’s other large cities. While some of the refugees emigrated to quasi-democratic nations, most of them settled in the small towns and on the farms across the countryside, where they began building new, rural lives. A year ago, it was a flood of refugees. Now fewer people are able to escape.

A year, now, and even though she has studied and practiced, the wicked witch is no wickeder than she ever was. Nowadays she even forgets to put on the wicked-witch mask that she used to think scared people. But it’s easy for everyone to see that, masked or not, she’s just an ordinary woman practicing an old-time religion. She’s never fooled anyone, not the sixty or so refugees who now live on her farm, especially not the various ravens who drop by regularly for snacks in exchange for gossip.

Continue reading “A Rescue Remedy, Part I by Barbara Ardinger”

Saving Joan of Arc by Natalie Weaver

I’m finished with my first semester as a studio arts major at Kent State University.  I am not sure whether I’ll be registering for a second one.  There were pros and cons about the experience, and I am not sure if one set outweighed the other. Regardless, I am on sabbatical this spring, have two books to complete, and figured I would do well not to be trekking back and forth in an hours worth of snow and ice over the next few months from my home to the school.  So, I am taking a semester off, and I have become one of those retention risks. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the experience with only minimal consequence to my bank account and my (laughing) future in the arts.

It wasn’t a bad experience; it wasn’t a good one either, really.  I learned some things in drawing, but I am very much on the fence about my experience in sculpture.  For starters, I imagined playing with clay and making pinch pots while some Swayzesque spirit from beyond rubbed my shoulders.  Instead, I was more Jessica Beal with a welding mask, except, instead of wearing a swanky black leotard and off-the-shoulder-slouch-dance tunic, I was wearing ugly jeans and steal-toed shoes under the green welding suit that had half-dollar size holes in it.  The protective gear only partially worked; I was scared of the tools after a classmate almost lost a finger; and the top of my hair went up in smoke when a spark shot under my ill-fitting Vader hat on week two.  I put it out quickly, fortunately.

Continue reading “Saving Joan of Arc by Natalie Weaver”

Depicting Mary by Natalie Weaver

In October I had the opportunity to travel to the Louvre Museum on a free day I had from a conference I was attending in Leuven, Belgium.  I went predisposed to consider images of the Madonna as I had been thinking about her representations in art for some time.  In my own painting, I have been developing a version of the Annunciation that depicts Mary as a teenage girl reading a pregnancy test.  Her fear and consternation, coupled by the shock of the event of learning of her pregnancy strikes me as a more accessible telling of the true vulnerability and risk of the unwed child Mary than classic depictions of Mary as a reclining queenly figure quietly receiving the angel’s message.  I likewise had been working on a wood burnt figure of a Black Madonna as a study in both icon making and also understanding the tradition of Black Madonnas found throughout Eastern Europe.

I am deeply aware that representing this figure is a culturally laden task because the Madonna speaks both to some of the deepest spiritual needs and inclinations of many faithful Christians world over, just as she is almost shorthand for division among Christian communities.  Her presentation is tremendously political as it is received by fans and critics simultaneously as at once championing women (and the divine within women) and also condemning real women whose maternity and bodies can never be as morally or physically pristine as Mary’s.  Mary’s skin, clothing, age, gesturing, posture, gaze, and more speak volumes about the social location of her patrons and creators as well as the manner in which the viewer is being invited to receive her.

Continue reading “Depicting Mary by Natalie Weaver”

Holy Women Icons Bearing the Light of Advent by Angela Yarber

There’s nothing like the holiday season to bring out everyone’s least feminist self. In one of the courses that I teach—Gender, Food, and the Body in Popular Culture—students are assigned to examine gender roles throughout the holiday season through the lens intersectional ecofeminism. Inevitably, almost every student returns from holiday break with the same assessment: mom, grandma, and a kitchen full of women prepare, cook, and clean every family meal; women do the holiday shopping; men in the family watch sports. Of course, this isn’t true of everyone. There are plenty of families who subvert and dismantle stereotypical gender roles, but the holidays seem to heighten these roles, undergirding them with some kind of nostalgic and theological weight that claims that if mama doesn’t arduously prepare her famed casserole, the season will be ruined. Otherwise committed feminists find themselves singing carols filled with sexist language and participating in holiday rituals that they would critique any other time of the year. Subversion be damned because we want our traditional family holiday!

I’ve long struggled with creative ways to subversively approach the holidays as a queer clergywoman, parent, artist, and author. People like their nostalgic and heart-warming traditions, even when they sometimes smack of patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity. I’ve confronted this as a preacher and worship planner, often to raised eyebrows or angry phone calls from congregants who just want to sing the carols without the preacher changing the words, or dismissing the notion of a virgin birth, or hanging enormous paintings of pregnant women all over the sanctuary.

Continue reading “Holy Women Icons Bearing the Light of Advent by Angela Yarber”

What I Believe (Post-2016) by John Erickson

Ever since the election of You-Know-Who, I have been doing a lot of creative writing.

Ever since the election of You-Know-Who, I have been doing a lot of creative writing. Unlike academic publications, policy reports, or my dissertation, creative writing, much like my mentor Dr. Marie Cartier has written about, provided me with a needed escape from a world that seems to grow darker with each passing day.  In college, I served as Poetry Editor for the Wisconsin Review, the oldest literary journal in Wisconsin. Continue reading “What I Believe (Post-2016) by John Erickson”

Bridging Beyond Binaries: Painting Gloria Anzaldúa by Angela Yarber

One of the great joys of being an artist and writer is working on commissions, enlivening in paint, canvas, and word the stories of revolutionary holy women who have emboldened and inspired the one commissioning the Holy Woman Icon. Gloria Anzaldúa was on my list of holy women for a while when Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza finally gave me the nudge to paint her by commissioning an icon. Anzaldúa gave Robyn—and so many others—the framework, the bridgework, for dismantling the binaries of difference, for finding the beauty that resides at the borderlands of race, gender, and sexuality. As a scholar-activist, Robyn speaks of Anzaldúa as a patron saint, saying:

“Anzaldúa has always been for me the bridge between theory and action, and her work, both in writing and teaching, compels me to live into my vocation as a public theologian, which at root is bridging across lines of radical difference. Without Anzaldúa and without her bridging frame, I am unable to do the work that I now do. This icon offers me a visual reminder of the ways in which I’m called to be a bridge in curating communities of radical difference.”

Queer borderlands. Chicana borderlands. Feminist borderlands. Gloria Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004) was an American scholar who focused on the intersections among queer theory, feminist theory, and Chicana cultural theory. Born in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, Anzaldúa also bridged the borders of personal and academic writing, weaving together theory with lived experience, English with Spanish, and inviting readers into a new world—Mundo Zurdo—that transcended these seeming binaries. Continue reading “Bridging Beyond Binaries: Painting Gloria Anzaldúa by Angela Yarber”

Book Review: FLORENCE IN ECSTASY by Jessie Chaffee



Jessie Chaffee‘s Florence in Ecstasy is the most luminous debut novel I have read in a very long time. Imagine, if you will, a darker and more literary version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular spiritual seeker’s memoir, Eat Pray Love. This is not to diminish Gilbert’s memoir, which I loved, but Chaffee offers a much deeper dive into the dark night of a woman’s soul.

Hannah, a young American from Boston, goes to Florence, Italy to heal herself after her professional and personal life back home has disintegrated due to her anorexia. Surely, in life-loving Italy, where every meal is a celebration, Hannah can heal her disturbed relationship with food and her own body. Similarly, Eat Pray Love, with its luscious descriptions of Italian cuisine and Gilbert’s rejection of dieting in favor of buying a bigger pair of jeans, deals with body image issues and is often recommended reading for women and girls recovering from eating disorders.

But Chaffee’s novel, unlike Gilbert’s memoir, is no easy-going, feel-good read. Continue reading “Book Review: FLORENCE IN ECSTASY by Jessie Chaffee”

Honoring St. Mary of Magdala by Gina Messina

Gina Messina-Dysert profileWhile I am joining the conversation a bit late, I find it necessary to comment on the significance of the “upgrading” of the celebration of  St. Mary of Magdala to a feast – on par with the male apostles.  While such a day that honors her is quite overdue, I am grateful to Pope Francis for acknowledging this incredible woman and her leadership in the Christian movement.

As we know from the Gospels, it was Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus, during his crucifixion.  When the male apostles ran in fear – and rightfully so – Mary of Magdala stood with Jesus refusing to disavow him and was a face of love for him to see during his darkest moment.

It was Mary of Magdala who was the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.  The very first Easter began with her and she was commissioned by Jesus to go and share the good news – to tell the other apostles – and that is why she is known as the apostle to the apostles. Continue reading “Honoring St. Mary of Magdala by Gina Messina”

Our Ladies of Sea, Earth, and Sky by Joyce Zonana

Sara and the Marys
Sainte Sara encompassing Sainte Marie-Salome and Sainte Marie-Jacobe

O Sainte Marie-Jacobe, priez pour nous.

O Sainte Marie-Salome, priez pour nous.

O gardeures de la Provence, priez pour nous.

The priest intoned the words in deep, liquid accents, his voice echoing from the ancient stone church in the remote village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue region of Southern France, where the waters of the Rhone River meet the Mediterranean Sea in a wild, wide, flat expanse populated by black bulls, pink flamingos, and white horses.

“O, Saint Mary-Jacobe, pray for us.”
“O, Saint Mary-Salome, pray for us.”
“O, guardians of the gates of Provence, pray for us.”

I could feel the words resonating through me, bringing sudden, hot tears. The people gathered in the small village square repeated the priest’s chant, their voices rising above the low, white-washed houses into the sunlit sky, out towards the shimmering sea where legend tells us the two Marys had drifted two thousand years ago in a boat without rudder or sail.

Continue reading “Our Ladies of Sea, Earth, and Sky by Joyce Zonana”

Moving Away from Normative Maternal Roles in the Catholic Church by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

FreyhaufEarlier this week, social media was all abuzz about the Pope’s investigation into restoring women to the diaconate. In the complete transcript of the Pope’s comments,  the traditional notion of women’s maternal role in the church is mentioned in relation to the Church.  Certainly this is nothing new.  Here the Pope describes important “maternal” work such as working with the marginalized, catechesis, and caring for the sick – once again, nothing new.

However, in the next sentence, a very subtle shift is seen when it comes to normative gender roles:

…. there are men who do the same [work as consecrated women], and it is good…..and this is important.

What does this mean – a change in language?  a laying of groundwork? or nothing at all?


It is no secret that cultural constructs of women as maternal and how a mother is defined as or even does has radically changed in today’s society; but, the Church continues to remain steadfast in normative roles between the priesthood and the “motherhood” of the Church (and therefore “motherhood” in general).

Continue reading “Moving Away from Normative Maternal Roles in the Catholic Church by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

Lucy Pick’s Pilgrimage by Mary Sharratt

mary sharrattIn medieval Europe, religious devotion provided an alternate narrative for women’s lives in a male-dominated culture. Defiant women who stood up for themselves in the face of rape, incest, and murder were hailed as virgin martyrs. Religious vocations, such as becoming a nun or a beguine, provided a viable and esteemed alternative to forced marriage.

Even women who were married with children could escape their domestic entanglements and conjugal duties by taking an oath of celibacy as 15th century English mystic Margery Kempe did, leaving behind her husband and 14 children to go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and Jerusalem. Her Book of Margery Kempe, the tale of her travels, reads like a kind of late medieval Eat, Pray, Love and is the first autobiography written in the English language.

Though it might seem surprising to us today, women of the European Middle Ages possessed more rights and freedoms than their descendants in the Renaissance, Early Modern, and Victorian ages. Women worked as craftspeople and artisans and were members of the guilds, alongside men. Monarchs such as Eleanor of Aquitaine were global power brokers while religious leaders such as Hildegard von Bingen devoted their lives to intellectual and artistic pursuits, composing music and writing weighty philosophical and theological books that are still being discussed today.

lucy pick pilgrimageThe cover of academic historian Lucy Pick’s novel Pilgrimage shows details from a painted altarpiece dedicated to Saint Godeleva. A victim of forced marriage who was strangled by order of her husband, this legendary saint was a patron of abused wives. Lucy Pick’s novel concerns the saint’s daughter, the blind Gebirga of Gistel in Flanders. What would it be like to be the daughter of a martyred saint whose miracles cured everyone except you?

Considered unmarriageable due to her blindness, Gebirga rejects life as a nun in an abbey dedicated to her sainted mother. Instead, in a bid for freedom, she embarks on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in faraway Iberia, an epic journey for that time. She serves as the companion to a highly strung teenage noblewoman and is charged with delivering the girl to the Spanish king she is contracted to marry. During their travels, Gebirga must use all her intelligence and resourcefulness to protect herself and her young charge from the considerable dangers and political intrigues they face on their way. Though they encounter hardship and heartbreak, this is a pilgrimage of miracles, healing, and redemption.

Lucy Pick, the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, has infused her novel with impeccable research into the lives of medieval women. This novel is a medievalist’s delight and fans of the late Margaret Frazer will devour this book.

Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, Better Books for a Better World. Her forthcoming novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, tells the tale of the groundbreaking Renaissance women poet Aemilia Bassano Lanier and will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2016. Visit Mary’s website.


Coloring Holy Women by Angela Yarber

angelaColoring is a fast growing trend among over-stressed adults. Soothing coloring pages are a top Google search item. There are coloring books featuring mandalas, garden scenes, inspirational quotes, and even curse words written in fancy calligraphy sprouting branches, flowers, and swirls eager to be illuminated with colored pencils toted by hipsters, young professionals, retirees, clergy, and other adults searching for artistic ways to tap their creative spirit and sooth their jangled nerves. Articles—popular and academic—whose authors range from psychologist to spiritual director purport the power of coloring to calm anxiety, relieve stress, and provide a creative and spiritual outlet. Is this a feminist issue? I’d say so.

There are, indeed, feminist coloring books and goddess coloring books, though I’ve seen very little that fuses together both feminism and religion. In order to fill this gap, while also seeking to expand my own creative expression, I have finally completed the drawings for my forthcoming Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. Continue reading “Coloring Holy Women by Angela Yarber”

Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya

VibahI recently assigned my students an article by Kathleen Erndl – “Is Shakti Empowering for Women? Reflections on Feminism and the Hindu Goddess.”[1] I’m sure, like Erndl, many have been fascinated by this question, especially within the Indian context. Does the presence of an abundance of goddesses necessarily translate to social empowerment for women? The answer is indeed complicated in that one cannot reify all goddess worshippers under one static rubric.

Having said that, however, I would like to posit that generally speaking, it would be fair to say Indian culture is a patriarchal one, and that the presence of a goddess tradition does not translate to independence for women. Firstly, the kind of goddesses worshipped by both men and women, are not necessarily the assertive, independent kind. They are often those such as Lakshmi and Saraswati who are maternal and nurturing, and important in their own right. All too often, however, these virtuous traits have been used to disempower women, to keep them in their “socially assigned places.”

There is evidence from early Hindu literature that the above goddesses may initially have been independent forces, but they soon came to be tamed as consorts of male gods; Lakshmi as Vishnu’s wife, and Saraswati as Brahma’s. Second, fierce and independent goddesses such as Kali and Durga may have a large following, but it is only in certain cases such as in Tantric theology specific to the goddess Shakti, identified with Kali, that ritual practices may do away with gender roles, that both male and female members have equal access to Kali. But the important question would be – outside of the ritual context, how do practitioners of Tantra regard women? In other words, do women have equal social – and not merely equal ritual – status? I am not an expert in Tantric discourse, but judging by various commentaries, I have reason to believe that this does not necessarily translate to gender equality in the social setting.

My quest here, however, is to provide an example of what a community with a strong, female leader may look like. I thought of this example because I have been intrigued with and fascinated by my own family experience regarding the cult of Kalawati Aai or Mother Kalawati (I do not use the term “cult” derogatorily as “a group with a powerful and controlling leader” but in the classical sense of “practices centering on an object of reverence”). My aim is to provide a picture of often conflicting ideals within the Hindu setting, to shed light on how this can play out on the ground. My information on Kalawati Aai – considered a saint by her devotees – comes from hearsay and hagiographical accounts for I never met her; she died almost forty years ago.[2]

Continue reading “Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 1) by Vibha Shetiya”

Black Madonna Transforms into Vodou’s Lesbian Defender by Kittredge Cherry

Kittredge Cherry
Kittredge Cherry

One of the most famous Catholic icons is the model for a Haitian Vodou goddess who protects lesbians.

Traditional images of Erzulie Dantor, the Vodou defender of lesbians, are based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.  They even share the same two scars on the dark skin of the right cheek.

Every year more than 100,000 people view the original Black Madonna of Czestochowa icon in Poland at one of the most popular Catholic shrines on the planet. John Paul II, the Polish pope, was devoted to her. Few suspect that the revered icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a lesbian connection. Continue reading “Black Madonna Transforms into Vodou’s Lesbian Defender by Kittredge Cherry”

Embracing Fierceness by Mary Sharratt

maenad dancing with snake

Maenad dancing with snake, ancient Greece, ca 450 BCE

This post is in part inspired by Donna Henes’s brilliant post, I am Mad. Too often as spiritual women, we are told we have to be nice all the time. Accomodating. Compromise our boundaries and principles.

Mainstream religions tell us we must forgive those who mistreat us. Too many women in very abusive situations literally turn the other cheek–to their extreme detriment. As Sherrie Campbell points out in her essay The 5 Faults of Forgiveness, the obligation of forgiveness oppresses survivors of abuse because it makes it all about the perpetrator and not about the healing, dignity, or boundaries of the survivor.

In my own Catholic upbringing I learned to swallow my anger and rage until it erupted in depression and burning bladder infections. My background did not teach me to skillfully dance with anger and it’s been a difficult learning curve for me. But I learned the hard way that owning my anger was crucial if I wanted to stand in my power and speak my truth.

Continue reading “Embracing Fierceness by Mary Sharratt”

Venus and Mary by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver editedOf the many things I have read recently, one thing stands out in my mind in high relief. It is the opening of Lucretius’ masterwork on Epicurean philosophy, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Here Lucretius invokes Venus to help him craft this work, identifying her as the governor of all nature and the one through whose light all else comes into being. With her help, Lucretius trusts that he can write his truths with confidence and ability in defiance of dominant philosophical norms.

Lucretius goes on to extol the great wisdom of that ancient Greek, Epicurus, claiming that the philosopher saved humankind from foully groveling upon the ground by liberating people from religious superstition. Superstition, he goes on to say, is the source of true impiety and criminality, made manifest in Lucretius’ example in the sacrifice of child virgins.

Why do people succumb to religious superstition and such horrible deeds, he queries rhetorically. Because of fear of death, terror at the anticipation of penalties in the afterlife, and the desire to avoid tribulations during life. So great is the fear of suffering that it makes people susceptible to religious exploitation and subordinate to the authority of priests, whose power rests exclusively on superstition. Such a ruinous condition can only be countered by the philosophical examination of nature, including all things celestial and terrestrial, spiritual and material. Having prayerfully introduced his case and the reason for his critique, Lucretius proceeds to explore the basic tenets of Epicurean metaphysics and ethics. Continue reading “Venus and Mary by Natalie Weaver”

Mary Magdalen’s Cave by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegMy first post for FAR appeared on July 22, 2012, the feast day of Mary Magdalen. I like to dedicate my July posts to her and include an excerpt from The Maeve Chronicles, the novels I spent 20 years writing, which feature a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. This year’s excerpt is from Bright Dark Madonna, the third in the series, which follows her (mis)adventures from Pentecostal Jerusalem, to the wilds of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, the port city of Ephesus, and finally to her legendary cave in France.

While doing research for the novel, I made a pilgrimage to Le Grotte de Marie Madeleine in Southern France. A forty-five minute climb, past a spring leads to a high cliff wall where a spacious cave has been made into a chapel to the saint. There were no other people at the site except my husband and daughter who kindly gave me time alone in the cave—alone with her. As I wrote in FAR’s pages a while back, I have a longing for hermitage that I haven’t allowed myself to fully inhabit. Maeve, on the other hand, goes all out, or rather, in.   Here is what she has to say: Continue reading “Mary Magdalen’s Cave by Elizabeth Cunningham”

An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond

cynthia garrity bondRecently I took one of those on-line quizzes that show up on Facebook. Based on my response to particular questions, it promised to tell me what my Biblical name would be. To my joy I received Mary Magdalene. To my disappointment her bio lacked any of the historical tensions we have come to expect.

On July 22 we celebrate the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection and therefore deemed, “apostle to the apostles.” For as many depictions of Mary there are just as many interpretations. Her status in early Christianity surpassed the Virgin Mother in popularity but by the fourth century her positive image began to decline. In 594 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he conflated the story of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with Mary of Magdala as penitent whore, a title she would embody for nearly 1,400 years until in 1969 when the Catholic Church repealed its teaching of Mary as prostitute.

On the other hand, recent feminist theological scholarship, especially by Karen King, offers a depiction of Mary as leader within ecclesial settings, where, “From the second to the twenty-first century, women prophets and preachers have continued to appeal to her to legitimate their own leadership roles,” (King, 153). By casting Mary as prostitute and adulteress, King argues, the church tarnished the image of Mary as a spiritual leader. It is this binary of Mary as repentant whore or “prominent disciple of Jesus, a visionary, and a spiritual teacher” (King, 154) that I wish to explore.

To begin I ask the question what does it mean for Mary’s role as leader for her to have been a prostitute who also functioned, in the words of King, as disciple of Jesus, a visionary and spiritual teacher? Continue reading “An Indecent Reading of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Garrity-Bond”

Painting Perpetua and Felicity: Patron Saints of Same-Sex Couples by Angela Yarber

angelaRecently, I realized the heart’s capacity to hold both extreme tragedy and utmost joy simultaneously. Surely this is something I’ve experienced in the past, but both personal and nation-wide events have served as poignant reminders. First, the racism that primarily persists in microaggressive forms—in the underbelly of a society that too often prides itself in the heinous sin of “colorblindness,” claiming that racism no longer exists in the United States—reared its violent head in the most blatant and painful ways in the slaughter of nine innocent people in Charleston. Because the shooting took place in a church, some media outlets have tried to claim that the shooter’s intentions were to attack persons of faith. It is clear, however, based on Dylann Roof’s words, photos, and history, that these killings were hate crimes targeted specifically at black people. Hearts broke. Lives ended. We, as a nation, were reminded, all too soon and yet again, that the lives of black people are valued less. Racism is present, evil, persistent, both blatant and hidden. It is more than hearts can hold.

Only days later SCOTUS ruled that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. As my wife and I were packing to leave on a year-long journey throughout the country, we had already made copies of our marriage license (from Maryland before North Carolina recognized the legality of our love), two separate adoption decrees because our state did not recognize us as a family when my wife first adopted our child a brief 20 months ago, and all of the other legal paperwork that we could use to “prove” the legitimacy of our family in the case of an emergency (if medical staff wouldn’t permit us both to be in a hospital room with our child, for example). With those files copied and stored neatly in a suitcase, everything changed for us. Now, no matter what state we visit, our family is legally recognized. And while I’d like to think that our paperwork is no longer necessary, I know that the legality of the court’s decision doesn’t automatically change the hearts and minds of everyone in the country. Heteronormativity still reigns supreme. While we rejoiced at the ruling, we simultaneously acknowledged that marriage is only one small step in dismantling straight supremacy. Though countless couples can now marry, receiving all the legal rights and privileges therein, many may still live in states that allow LGBTQs to be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, where housing may be denied, where hate crime protections do not include sexual orientation or gender identity, and the list could continue. Still many queer people, myself included, found ourselves reveling in utter joy. Continue reading “Painting Perpetua and Felicity: Patron Saints of Same-Sex Couples by Angela Yarber”

Were Hildegard’s Visions Caused by Migraines? by Mary Sharratt

hildegard's vision of christ 2

Hildegard’s vision of Christ, surrounded by concentric circles of light.



When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.

–Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart, O.S.B., and Jane Bishop

Neurologist Oliver Sacks believed that the dazzling visions of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the great Benedictine abbess and polymath, were caused by migraines. Hildegard struggled with chronic health problems. In Scivias, her first book of visionary theology, she described being bedridden when she received the divine command to write and speak about her visions that she had kept secret since childhood. According to Sacks, the symptoms she described are identical to those of migraine sufferers. He also stated that the concentric circles in the illuminations illustrating her visions are reminiscent of a migraine aura.

But can Hildegard’s visionary experience truly be reduced to pathological hallucinations? Continue reading “Were Hildegard’s Visions Caused by Migraines? by Mary Sharratt”

Guanyin Revisited: Queer, Pacifist, Vegan Icon by Angela Yarber

Each month, I delight in writing about a revolutionary woman. Whether she is from history or mythology, sharing the stories of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is one of my favorite things to do as a feminist, artist, scholar, and clergywoman. Yet, no matter how much research I’ve done, or how many times I’ve taught about an icon, new discoveries are made, revelations within my own heart and mind cracked open, so that there is sometimes the need to revisit a particular holy woman afresh. Such is the case this month with Guanyin. Though I wrote about her nearly two years ago, published a book including her story, and have taught a course with one session focused on her compassion and mercy, I realized that much about her has gone unsaid. Namely, she is an icon for queers, pacifists, and vegans. Before explaining why, let’s have a quick review…

Guanyin is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. In the Lotus Sutras, she originates from a bodhisattva named Avalokitesyara. Avalokitesyara is identified as male in the Lotus Sutras. Overtime, however, Avalokitesyara transitions from being identified as a male to becoming Guanyin, most often portrayed in feminine terms and referred to as “she.” Many scholars assert that Guanyin is androgynous and can take on the form of any sentient being. And this is how I’ve always written about Guanyin, as the divinely androgynous one who is most often portrayed in feminine form. Continue reading “Guanyin Revisited: Queer, Pacifist, Vegan Icon by Angela Yarber”

Kassiani: Placing a Woman at the Center of the Easter Drama by Carol P. Christ

Carol in Crete croppedFor many years I been told of the beautiful Hymn of Kassiani, sung only on Easter Tuesday night, but I had never heard it until this week. For many this song is the high point of Easter week.

Kassiani, also known as St. Kassia, was a Greek woman born into a wealthy family in Constantinople (now Istanbul) about 805 to 810 AD. According to three historians of the time, she was intelligent and beautiful and selected as a potential bride for the Emperor Theophilos. The chroniclers state that the Theophilos approached her and said: “Through woman, the worst,” referring to the sin of Eve. Clever Kassiani responded, “Through woman, the best,” referring to the birth of the Savior through Mary.

Apparently unable to accept being put in his place by a woman, Theophilos chose another bride. Kassiani founded a monastery in Constantinople becoming its first abbess. She was an outspoken theological advocate of icons during the iconoclastic crisis (for which she was flogged). One of only two women to publish under her own name during the Byzantine Middle Ages, Kassiani wrote both poetry and hymns. Up to 50 of her hymns are known today, with 23 of them being part of the Greek Orthodox liturgy. Continue reading “Kassiani: Placing a Woman at the Center of the Easter Drama by Carol P. Christ”

Painting “Unknown” Holy Women: Commissions, Gifts, and the Unsung Stories of “Ordinary” Women by Angela Yarber

angelaEach month on Feminism and Religion, I feature a Holy Women Icon with a folk feminist twist. The painting is accompanied by an essay describing the holy woman’s life and the ways she stood for justice and peace, the ways in which she embodied feminism. Thus far, we have explored the stories of holy women that are well-known, perhaps not by the wider public, but by feminists seeking to uncover the forgotten truths of holy women throughout history. They are goddesses, saints, artists, dancers, scholars, clergy, and pillars of the faith: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, Tiamat/tehom, and Mother Teresa, just to name a few.

We tell their stories in our classrooms. Other artists paint them. Many have biographies or autobiographies recounting their lives. Their stories embolden us to stay strong, and continue working for justice and equality. But what of the women whose songs really are unsung, whose stories never grace the pages of our textbooks? What about the “unknown” women who have, indeed, emboldened us, paved the way for us to be who we are, but who most people have never heard of? Many such women are also holy, thus deserving of canonization as Holy Woman Icons.

ElizabethI would like to dedicate this post to all the holy women who fill our lives, yet whose stories we never hear. Because it is not only these seemingly famous women—these heroines of feminism—who are holy and whose stories matter.   Continue reading “Painting “Unknown” Holy Women: Commissions, Gifts, and the Unsung Stories of “Ordinary” Women by Angela Yarber”

Hildegard: A Saint Eight Centuries in the Making

hildegard & volmar

The visionary abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) has long been regarded as a saint, with her feast day of September 17, yet she was only officially canonized in May 2012. Why did it take the Vatican over eight centuries to canonize this great polymath, composer, and theologian?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over fifty years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric. Even the authorship of her own work was disputed as pundits began to suggest her books had been written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, Germany. In 1956 Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation.

hildegard judy chicago dinner party setting

Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical theologian Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically it was his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expelled Matthew Fox from the Dominican Order where Fox had served for thirty-four years—finally gave Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, had long admired Hildegard. He not only canonized her but elevated her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title given to only the most distinguished theologians.

But I believe the true credit for Hildegard’s triumph is due to the Benedictine Sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey for keeping Hildegard’s flame burning.


This is drawn from Ann K. Gebuhr’s book, Hildegard!

Take some time to listen to and contemplate Hildegard’s beautiful musical meditation on the Holy Spirit, O ignis spiritus paracliti:

O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,

Life of the life of every creature,

You are holy, anointing those perilously broken;

You are holy, cleansing festering wounds.

O breath of loveliness,

O fire of love,

O sweet savour in our breasts,

Infusing heart with the scent of virtue.

O clearest fountain,

In which we see

How God gathers the alienated

And finds the lost.

O breastplate of life

And hope of the whole human body,

O belt of honour, save the fortunate.

Guard those imprisoned by the enemy

And free those who are bound,

Whom the divine power wishes to save.

O mightiest course

That has penetrated all things

In the heavens and on earth

And in every abyss–

You reconcile and draw all humanity together.

From you clouds flow, wind flies,

Stones produce moisture,

Water flows in streams,

And the earth exudes living greenness.

You are always teaching the learned,

Who, through wisdom’s inspiration,

Are made joyful.

Thence praise be to you who are the sound of praise,

And joy of life,

And hope and greatest honour,

Granting the gift of light.

(This is Susan Hellauer’s translation from the insert booklet of Anonymous 4’s CD, The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen.)

Read Hildegard’s poem slowly as a prayer, contemplating how the Sacred Flame, however you envision it in your own spiritual tradition, relates to your life.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen won the Nautilus Gold Award and was a 2012 Kirkus Book of the Year. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com.

Painting La Negrita by Angela Yarber

angelaOne week ago thousands of Costa Ricans made a pilgrimage to visit their patron saint on August 2. Some penitents walked the 22 kilometers on their knees from the capital of San José to the Nuestra Señora de los Angeles Basilica in Cartago where the small statue of La Negrita is now on display. Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is this seemingly small saint who has done big and mighty things: La Negrita.

Also known as La Virgen de los Angeles, the Black Virgin is a very small representation of the Virgin Mary. She was originally discovered by an indigenous woman on August 2, 1635. When the poor indigenous woman tried to take the stone statuette, it miraculously reappeared. The people responded by building a shrine around her. Continue reading “Painting La Negrita by Angela Yarber”

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