franciscan - January 1996
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1995
Though we are many
by Jennifer Wild
“How does being a woman (with an emphasis on body) affect spirituality?” It is hard even to formulate the question, let alone start to answer it. We seem to have here a threefold blend: female-body-spirit, and the question is asked of a woman, who might be supposed to have an insider’s view, but who might also be supposed, not unreasonably, to have no great notion of how the other half of the human race manages to distinguish itself.
We have more in common than what separates us, and the fact that heart, lungs and digestive systems rule all our lives inescapably ought not to be totally overlooked. In fact it might be thought unfortunate that this brief glance at the embodied female spirit seems to have to focus on the generative organs. And anyway, can we speak (as I have just done) of the human race? We had better reduce that to the part of it most Franciscan readers belong to, the relatively well-off, western, predominantly white, mainly Christian or post-Christian world.
And yet, at the same time, we recognise increasingly the voices of women in other cultures, other races, religions: we being many are one body. And we have a history too: not only the sometimes overwhelmingly important personal inner story that we mull over in retreat, but the long, aching, human story of persistent faith and lingering cruelty, inflicted and suffered, the tangle of good and ill that is impossible to sort with finality.
There is, I think, among some women at least, a strong and strongly-felt need to disentangle ourselves from false notions of what it means to be a woman of faith in the Christian community. Some are false notions that we have been taught from childhood, in a religious context, some we find so prevalent in the world around us that it is hard to escape with or without the help of religion. To summarise baldly, women are struggling away from a sense that our bodies, at least between neck and knee, are a source of deep embarrassment.
Our bodies are sacred, we are told: temples of the Holy Spirit. But we also carry in our bodies the message that we are dangerous, that our bodies are as often a curse as a blessing. It might seem best to take as little notice of them as possible. The postures recommended for public worship in our churches do not help. Crouched in our pews at prayer, we hide ourselves from each other and from God.
There can seem to be a sort of holy immobilisation being effected for both women and men, of course, though it is still easy to find places of worship where almost all the movement is by males. It is not, I believe, altogether fashionable to use the language of ‘brands plucked from burning’ of the faithful Christian, but lacking that desperate urgency, we also seem to have to do without the reality behind the rhetoric of the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God.’
When women gather together to share something of their spiritual search and journey with each other, they usually look for some embodiment of their aspirations. There is a felt need for an involvement of more than the head. We talk and argue, brainstorm, shout and listen, but we also dance, learn and practise simple forms of stress-relieving massage, burn sweet-smelling oils, anoint one another or wash one another’s hands. What arises, even if unspoken, is the need to be redeemed from being split, being forced into a place that destroys self-respect, a space where there simply isn’t room for all of our selves.
Redemption, healing, flourishing: these are the “wide room” our whole being calls for, for ourselves and for everyone; where women can explore friendship with women (as we equally hope men can learn to do with men) without a sense of this being a stepping aside from the “normal” social expectations.
There are other settings than the specifically religious: a teacher of the Alexander technique and a gifted cranial osteopath have managed to bring home to me that this body is all me, that the rediscovery of “right use” of my body, the slow righting of imbalances and bad physical habits, is a spiritual enterprise. The body that is growing older, on its way towards its dissolution in death, can move gracefully.
It is difficult, however, to escape, or even get a clear view of, our own cultural milieu, the atmosphere that we all breathe, male and female, in which we grow or fail to grow. Take The Guardian newspaper, for instance. In a recent issue, I looked to see in what ways women made it into the news: a woman guilty of a peculiarly violent murder and a woman who admitted that she had lied to get a man imprisoned; Lady Thatcher’s expensive birthday party; the suicide of a Japanese earthquake survivor; Diane Modahl’s hopes of taking part in the next Olympic Games (the only reference I could find to any woman on the four pages of sports news); a photograph of a woman of Sarajevo holding her Red Cross bowl of spaghetti; an Irish recollection of a liberal education in the sixties: the priest to whom the writer (aged fifteen) made his confession “had actually constructed a quite complex league table of sin exclusively based on the female body”; and in the tabloid section a half-page sickeningly awful Gucci model.
Women are newsworthy when they step out of line (are violent, deceitful, or spectacularly successful), or are in particular trouble (Modahl, the Japanese suicide, the starving woman of Sarajevo), but most of the “real” events concern men, and originate with them. Perhaps this is the weakness of the media. Or is it still the case that as women we “bear in our body the dying of the Lord Jesus” in quite particular female mode, because of our unity in the flesh as in the spirit with the good and the evil that is done and endured in other female bodies, and because of our strong hope that the life also that Jesus exhibited in male form might be manifested in this body of ours? f
Jennifer Wild is a joint co-ordinator of Womenspace, a programme for women, co-author of Guard the Chaos, and co-editor of Celebrating Women and Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change (1995), which will be reviewed in the next edition of franciscan.
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