Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland and lifelong Catholic, is religiously disruptive. She says that people are tired of ‘old men trying to beat the drum of obedience, being obedient to teaching that is long past its sell-by date and needs to be revised, needs to be critiqued’. With a doctorate in Canon Law from Rome’s Pontifical University she’s well equipped to use the the church’s own tools and systems to call them to account.
Being disruptive wasn’t seen as part of the female skill set when Mary was born in the 1950’s. Instead, being submissive and keeping quiet was valued, especially when men were talking. And, in those days, men did most of the talking, especially in church environments. Their rhetoric gave us skewed ideas about what Godde could be and what it meant to be a spiritually aware woman.
Many Catholic women, including a suitably disruptive Auckland group, Be The Change Catholic Church Aotearoa, have struggled to have their voices for change heard. I was conscious of this weight when invited to speak at mass in an advent initiative that has actively valued women’s voices over the last few years. But how did I get to be there?
About four years ago, I returned from an overseas trip feeling agitated, out of sorts. As usual, my friend and I had trailed in and out of cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and assorted holy places. This is what a priest and a philosopher steeped in religious studies do on their travels, in-between conversations about the meaning of life over vino. But everything on this trip kept picking at a scab.
Back home my license as an Anglican priest had been withdrawn after my writing on spirituality had provoked criticism from church authorities. Although I still worked in a spiritual/pastoral care role, I felt increasingly dislocated from the tradition, adrift, unable to comprehend what was happening or my next steps. By the end of our trip, the scab was off. I knew I had to do something constructive to encourage healing.
Something turned into joining a singing group at the cathedral. They accepted me, no questions asked. That helped. Every few weeks since then I’ve sat side on to the altar helping to lead congregational singing. I’ve watched, listened, often decided I’d stop soon, reneged on that, wondered what on earth I was doing and pondered it all in my heart.
Although free to come and go as I liked, I kept returning to that uncomfortable, liminal space that was acting as a touchstone. Testing the quality or genuineness of what was percolating away inside whilst I touched the symbols and rituals of the tradition through what seemed like a gossamer veil. There but not there, a crucial dissonance.
Eventually, I figured out that I was sitting in the discomfort of my dislocation from the religious tradition that had formed and shaped me. Sitting in a space where there was no option to be a priest, or to even formally belong. An outsider, sojourning in a foreign country with very familiar landmarks. Perhaps symbolic of the spiritual life.
When Advent rolled around and the invitation arrived, I knew something had subtly shifted. Slowly, like a time lapse sequence, through a series of conscious and unconscious experiences. And it was the stories of my tradition that were stirring. As synchronicity would have it, I was allocated the pregnant virgin and angelic visitors. No pressure.
My shy, geeky, eight year old self who’d been entranced with biblical stories and the equally deep magic of Narnia, beamed with delight. We went at it with a passion. Long, hard work, shaping and shearing ideas and words. Letting imagination and the unconscious blend with intellect, reason and theological insight. My happy place that has a disruptive edge.
Disruptive because I see formal religion and the church as a doorway to more and not the destination. Intrinsically grounded in my tradition but not in service to it. Can be problematic if you want to be part of the institution.
From another perspective, you could say that this dislocation allowed a liberating force to actively encourage me to re-engage with the tradition in a more reflective way. Open to the reworking and rebirthing of the psyche that some call the self, soul or the divine within.
Reflection for me includes many imaginative sources including tarot. This time I used The Hierophant card, or the manifestation of the sacred, which traditionally appeared as male. In some decks it’s called the Pope or the Pontiff, the bridge between divine and human. It’s a card usually associated with traditional religion and religious leadership. In the Raziel Tarot, a deck based on Jewish ideas and stories, the card is The High Priest, associated with tradition, spiritual structures and rules. There’s an authoritarian maleness here.
These images connect with some women’s experience of being dealt a bad hand, feeling oppressed within male dominated religious structures. But if you deal a tarot card upside down, the meaning alters. In this case, expect non-conformity, going outside tradition or rules. The encouragement is to find your own way. In truth, something women have always done, even if they have appeared submissive within the over-culture.
As I wrote, I wondered what would happen if women stopped asking for permission. Instead, stepped up as spiritual leaders through a revisionist story telling approach. Purposefully re-engaging with biblical stories as mythology and metaphor that invite us to creatively write our next chapters forward. What if by focusing on our own interior, spiritual life and sharing those discoveries with other women and supportive men, the over-culture just didn’t stand a chance on its own?
Women, the feminine perspective and the instinctual life are vital in the re-formation of spiritual and religious stories for our time and place. As author Sue Monk Kidd said, ‘stories have to be told or they die, and when they die we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here’. If this is a path that invites your participation, may you have the courage to stand up and speak out.