franciscan - May 2005
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2005
Praying like a Woman
by Nicola Slee
Any spirituality worthy of the name must engage with the full reality of what it means to be human and, for me, this means that my prayer is rooted in and engages with all that I experience as a woman living in this particular time and place.
Prayer is, for me, the joy and the struggle of being as transparent as I can before the face of God and of others and of seeking God in all things. This journey of prayer has gone hand in hand with my journey to forge an authentic identity as a woman made in the image of God, knowing myself to be blessed and chosen precisely as woman. This has been struggle because, like so many women, I have imbibed deeply the unconscious message that to be woman is to be inferior, passive, secondary. Gradually I have learned to test each inherited tradition and reject those stereotypes of gender which have been reinscribed by patriarchy and the church and which have kept so many women (and men) in thrall. This has meant allowing anger, lament, sorrow and rage into my prayer - a scary but ultimately liberating process as I have dared to fling my fury at the face of God and discover the Spirit hovering over my chaos and pain. Wrestling and waiting in the places of paralysis and powerlessness, sometimes hopefully and sometimes in despair, have given birth, gradually, to a sense of empowerment and the necessity of speaking out, voicing those realities of my life (and those of many other women) which have previously been silenced and taboo. I have learnt that God is in my anger and my resistance, my body's pain and losses (hysterectomy, childlessness, chronic fatigue syndrome) as well as in my passion for nature, poetry, music and the arts, the joys of human connections, my sexuality and my love-making in all its different forms. Prayer is to be made at the most intimate places of desire and longing as well as in dereliction and loss; in the places of speaking out as well as in the places of silence, whether fearful, blessed or merely empty.
If prayer is partly about bringing all that one is before the divine gaze, it is also about being open to encounter the otherness, mystery and grace of that holy one. Out of the journey towards a deeper knowing and accepting of the self has emerged new namings of the divine. I do not reject the names and images I learnt as a child and adolescent: father, lord, saviour, redeemer, friend - though I have needed to rework and recast many of them. Alongside these traditional images, many new and neglected ones have been birthed in and through my prayer. I have come to know and name God as mother, midwife and crone, Christ as sister, Sophia and Christa, and Spirit as mystery, otherness, fecundity. I have also found myself drawn increasingly into an apophatic way of praying in which God is the dark mystery beyond every name and image, never to be captured by any one symbol or certainty. In terms of gender, what this might mean is multiple. God is to be known in that which is most lovely and authentic in female and male experience, so we may rightly name God 'Father', 'Mother', 'Sister', 'Brother'. Yet God is also to be known at the places where gender is ambivalent, fluid, uncertain; so we might also speak more riskily, as Marcella Althaus-Reid does, for example, of God as transvestite, leather dyke and drag queen. Such images disrupt any sense of God as fixed, safe, known. God is both within and beyond all our socially constructed and constantly changing patterns of gender and sexuality, eluding any fixed image or name (whether gendered or not) whilst never refusing to be encountered in our most intimate places of human identity and loving. f
Nicola Slee is a theologian and poet based at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham and author of Praying like a Woman (SPCK 2004).
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