Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reflections on being called into the Presence of the Feminine Face of God

I was fascinated to read in Sherry Ruth Anderson’s and Patricia Hopkins’ The Feminine Face of God that a woman being a free agent within her established religion of choice is not uncommon. The authors of this book compiled the stories of many fascinating female spiritual teachers, community advocates, role models, and artists of various types they interviewed all over North America, and the stories of many seemed somehow familiar to me. Some of the names of their interviewees were familiar, such as Maya Angelou and Marion Woodman, but that’s not why their stories rang with such familiarity for me.

What was familiar to me was the questions these women asked themselves—and asked their clergy and mentors—about how they could reconcile keeping or creating their place within traditionally male-dominated religions that revered a male God with their reverence for the more feminine aspects of God.

These are questions I’ve been asking myself for at least a year now. I was starting to wonder if I should again disassociate myself from my official adherence to an established religion because of my misgivings about its default male perspective, and create my own way of private worship that is only mine because I don’t know anyone else who has expressed such beliefs and views outside the realm of what their religions are equipped to accommodate.

I found it interesting in The Feminine Face of God that most of the women whose stories the authors recounted didn’t speak of God as specifically female, and some still even referred to God as “He.” Most of them are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or adherents of some other traditionally male-dominated religion. Some actually did make the switch from mainstream Christianity to what could be called Goddess worship, complete with ritual and imagery inspired by the ancient Goddess-revering cultures that Riane Eisler and Merlin Stone write about.

What made the authors of this book choose the women they did was that, whether these women operated outside of or within mainstream religions, they somehow demonstrated to their communities a spirituality that goes beyond how God and the spiritual life are described and demonstrated in the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’án, the Bhagavad Gita, and any other monotheistic Scripture. They stood out as demonstrators of the influence of the feminine side (i.e., traits typically associated with the female gender) of God because how they’ve lived their lives and taught others showed that assigning gender to God is irrelevant, and that helping people in need by responding to those people’s specific needs is more empowering than teaching them a particular religion to practice.

At the same time I read The Feminine Face of God, I began reading Virginia Ann Froehle’s Called Into Her Presence: Praying With Feminine Images of God. This book has been invaluable in helping me get back in the habit of praying by helping me become comfortable praying with the imagery (and pronouns) for God I resonate with the most.

One of the many things I like about these two books is that they are about striking a balance between the masculine and the feminine in our spirituality, not simply substituting feminine pronouns and feminine aspects of God for any and all masculine personification of God.

Froehle emphasizes in her introduction that it’s important for people to be comfortable praying with masculine and feminine images of God, so we don’t limit ourselves to trying to understand and connect with God by revering just one set of traits the Creator possesses. She makes it clear that the guided prayer meditations in her book are useful for men and women, and that for some people it may actually be more helpful to view God as male, depending on their needs and experiences.

Another thing that’s helpful is that Froehle, unlike most other authors I’ve read who use female pronouns for the Creator, still uses the name “God,” which likely most of her readers are accustomed to calling the Creator by. She made a wise choice in acknowledging the power of names by carrying over enough frame of reference from people’s old way of doing things for the shift to not feel so abrupt and foreign.

I would have gotten more out of this book if it didn’t focus specifically on recasting Christian scripture rather than taking into account people of other religions with the default male focus, but, again, Christian as the default frame of reference probably works best for most of her readers.

Reading The Feminine Face of God and Called Into Her Presence this year has helped me feel more at peace with breaking my personification of the Creator out of religiously-mandated molds for personifying God. I’ve always had difficulty personifying God at all, making me see things in a more pantheist way, so the more ways I have to make my visualizations more fluid and adaptable, the better.

Conceptualization of God as female instead of male is not the same thing as “Goddess worship,” which is typically thought of—and practiced—as a separate religion in and of itself. As these two books got my mind (and my prayers) working, I realized that worrying about if it was okay or not to pray less with written prayers and more with my own spontaneous conversations with God was getting in the way of my actually praying at all.

One of my biggest sources of struggle has been the fallacies and contradictions surrounding the notion of “selfishness.” Despite my exasperation with such assertions, my distress demonstrated I had internalized on some deep level the notion that I was selfish, lacking in spiritual certitude or strength because I wanted to pray my way, take my time to develop myself first as an individual before getting around to determining what and how much of myself I could give to others.

Add to that being dissatisfied with what religion told me would make me feel connected with God, and my ambivalent interpretation of selflessness, as being like putting on other people’s oxygen masks for them in a depressurized plane before putting on my own, and then dying of suffocation in the process and thus being able to save far fewer people than if I’d taken care of myself first.

I was amazed to read that how I started out looking at and doing things, most of the women Anderson and Hopkins interviewed for The Feminine Face of God had to learn the hard way. They had to first give and give and give until they almost completely used themselves up, then do something really drastic to save themselves. For some, their taking-of-solitude or shift in priorities was emotional rather than physical, while for others it was physical—getting divorced, moving into or out of a convent, spending a few months or a year of separation from their husbands and careers, moving to another state, or living almost completely devoid of human contact for years.

What the authors concluded was that when women take care of themselves, honor their own needs, see themselves and their bodies as naturally sacred rather than minefields for overindulgent temptations, and pray and serve in ways that resonate with them rather than in ways their religions or their parents teach them are best, they are whole, spiritually mature, more able to give and connect through love rather than obligation, and they contribute to society in more meaningful and lasting ways than if their primary motivators include avoidance of shame, of pride, and of divine punishment.

Reading these two books has not put me completely at peace once and for all with the ways my spiritual practice differs from how my religious frame of reference specifies I should do things. But, it is good to finally get confirmation I’m not just a self-serving maverick who is destined to remain a self-serving maverick because I find it so hard to fit into spiritual or social frameworks that seem to work well for so many other people.

Image: “Water Goddess” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic gel pen, white-out marker

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