Being a householder

In my last post I talked about the possibility that if reincarnation was a real thing then my previous lives most likely included several rounds of being a monk and/or a nun. Those past lives would explain my fascination with, inexplicable love for, and extreme weariness with Christianity; my intense longing for the contemplative life and for a spiritual tradition; my obsession with books and learning; my inner conflict with discipline; and my vehement chaffing at rules and orders of any kind.

I also struggle with a more modern conflict: that of being a mother. As a feminist, a mother, a spiritual and religious practitioner, and a white person of middle class standing in the 21st century, I feel a keen unease with my current status of Homemaker.

I’ve recently decided to step away from calling myself a stay-at-home-mom. It has connotations of being an upper middle class kept woman. The language heightens the isolation of stay-at-home-parents, and we are certainly isolated enough. Its passive language implies that we don’t do much, that perhaps we sit around, sequestered, eating bon bons. But homemaker, householder, implies to me craft, creation, effort, the holistic life of a Home.

As a householder I keep house; as a homemaker I make a home. I keep it tidy, clean and organized. I plan and cook three hot meals a day for at least four people. I make sure we are clothed in items that are clean and that fit reasonably well. I change diapers. I sort our things and make donations to organizations. I protect my home. I make it welcoming to those who would join us in good faith. I find ways to observe the seasons, the turning of the Wheel of the Year, and various other holidays in a way that we can all engage. I keep track of playdates and preschool plays and doctor’s appointments. I teach boundaries, numbers, and letters. I read to and tickle and kiss. I make a home.

Home

Home

These things are really unsexy. Most days they are terribly dull. Some days involve too much snot and too many tears. It’s not complicated, though it is complex. It’s not intellectually stimulating. I never need to dress up. It’s really pretty boring.. Though this doesn’t diminish the value of the work.

As a modern feminist, I sometimes wonder if this is the wisest use of my ‘best’ years. I’m over-educated for the job. I don’t get paid, and with my resumé I could make a nice yearly income elsewhere. Aren’t I holding up some mid-20th century patriarchal fantasy? I have many, many thoughts on these things, thoughts that tip into my radical political leanings, thoughts that aren’t quite appropriate for the blog post at hand.

What is important is that while my temperament isn’t ideal for this job and my many of my professional skills are languishing, I see this job as one of my most important – and that’s not just lip-service to ‘oh, aren’t you so noble for raising the next generation’ platitudes that often get thrown around when this topic is broached.

My job as a homemaker forces me to make my spirituality a priority. I don’t have the luxury of uninterrupted time. I have to choose when and if I’ll sit in front of my altar. I have to practice in the midst of chaos. There is no quiet. I have to bring my gods with me into the kitchen, the grocery store, the bathroom, the car. There is no separation between holy space and family space. I have to explain to tiny people what it is I’m doing, and why. I have to apply my magical skills to my kids – for healing, for nightmares, for self-possession (four-year olds have none, just saying).

This job is harder than being a priest. I’m not saying that being a priest is easy! Being a quality anything takes effort and time and skill. But being a householder involves being a priest AND a homemaker. I have to be priest of this temple I create and keep AND I have to be in the world. I make all things sound in the midst of the noise of life. I hold space for the holy while my kids are having tantrums (or while I am throwing an internal tantrum, sadly all too common these days).

Most of the time I forget that I’m a priest. Most days I’m just cooking and cleaning and wiping noses and butts and I don’t think about holding space or blessing the meal or making anything holy. I forget. Many days I’m not much more self-possessed than my son. But sometimes I see the magic. The curl of the incense reminds me. I see my two-year old bowing in front of Ganesh. She takes deep breaths and smiles. Sometimes a meal is particularly joyful and nourishing and I feel the magic that is made at the table.

Stirring the pot

Stirring the pot

If as a monk or nun in past lives I’ve learned how to have one kind of community in my practice and worship, to take orders from an abbot, to have vows of silence, or to lead a flock, to be separated from the world in the seeking of the Holy, I am learning now about a different sort of community and isolation, to take orders from my Self, to take different sorts of vows, how to lead a different kind of flock, to be in the world and seek the Holy.

Sometimes I sit in my altar room after the kids are asleep and I make Formal Magic. These muscles don’t get flexed very often, and when they do they feel creaky, but enthusiastic. But mostly my home is my temple and my daily life my practice and sweat, blood and tears my offerings.

Collaging the year, part two: 2013

Yesterday I posted about my 2012 collage, what came to pass and what did not (click here to read that post).

For 2013 I did a tarot reading. I used the Mary-El tarot. I drew the 9 of Swords, the King of Disks, the Devil reversed, the 2 of Swords reversed, the Moon, and the Hanged Man. Basically, I have yet another intense year ahead of me. (What I’d like to do is take a moment to whine about how intense and challenging everything has been for the last few years and how I’d really love it if the Universe would cut me a break, but hey – I seem hard-wired for intense. I basically sign up for Challenging and Intense whenever I see it. I’ve done this to myself.)

Instead of feeling overwhelmed and depressed by my reading, I decided to collage what I wanted out of my year, using the reading as my guide. Here’s what I created:

Collage 2013

Collage 2013

The Olympia and 13 are self-explanatory, I hope.

First, we have the 9 of Swords: pressure, passing through challenges, the hero’s journey, facing fears, attending to business, dodging challenges with skill. Yet pressure creates diamonds. Facing challenges makes us stronger. Attending to business gets things done. I decided to use this period to focus on my work, with reminders to endure. To that end I have a picture of a study with lots of books – a reminder to read and write and think! A picture of an altar to Durga. I believe that picture of the naked lady and the owl is an advertisement for a band. It says ‘Tiger! Tiger! Cut them where they bleed.’ I like the art and love the contrast of wisdom, nakedness and passive posture with such aggressive language. That feels right and good at this time. Going radical speaks for itself… although I think I’ve already done that! It never hurts to have another reminder.

Next up is the King of Disks: the master of pleasure and his physical environment. The card in the Mary-El deck has a faun eating of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – and liking it! I get a sense of ‘having one’s cake and eating it too.’ This is a reminder to enjoy the physical delights of life. Sex, for sure, as well as the bounty of this land – hence, the 5 oysters (maybe that’s my unconscious choice for a third child right there!). There’s a picture of a lake in Washington. The word ‘vacation’ is important here, because my husband and I have had only one vacation in our 9.5 years together. We desperately need another one.

With the Devil and the 2 of Swords, both reversed, I see me dealing with boundaries, demons, unresolved issues, and issues of identity. I don’t see this as necessarily negative. Dealing with these things can lead to more freedom and healing. The Economist (one of my favorite magazines) had an article on the history of Hell in its holiday double issue. I got the pictures of the demons from there. Why not have some explicit pictures of what I’m up against! I also wanted an image of strength, representing overcoming such demons, and that’s what the picture of Pussy Riot demonstrating in an Orthodox church represents for me. (It also never hurts to have bad ass feminists on display.)

As for identity, I love the photo of Audrey Hepburn laughing. She embodies grace. In this picture she looks like she might be in her 30s (appropriate) and I choose to face my challenges with as much grace and joy as possible. Also, ‘never hide’ – a reminder that while I don’t need to be all up in anyone’s face, I need never hide either.

After struggles of identity and demons, I have the Moon and the Hanged Man to look forward to. The Moon can be a time of instability, of dreams, of the un/subconscious bubbling up, taboos. It’s also a deeply feminine card, one of mystery, and can represent cycles. I wonder if this might coincide with an autumn birth? Or perhaps after dealing with my demons and identity and the inevitable challenge to taboos those things entail, I’ll just want some rest.

The Hanged Man is a card of chosen self-sacrifice. I would like to be more like Odin, who sacrificed himself to himself for the sake of wisdom, rather than like Jesus, who martyred himself to himself.

Both of the final cards indicate a need for retreat, rest, and contemplation. I could certainly use more rest. I’ve got a big picture of fresh, clean bed and a person meditating in a beautiful, serene spot.

There are other images: I think ‘wake up!’ shouts its meaning loud and clear; there is a person singing love into her surroundings (and I promised Kali I would sing); the hands releasing fire/magic; the altar image of Om and Ganesh is always an auspicious addition to any sacred art; the image of the Taj Mahal represents India and my possible trip there this year; the peaceful priestess.

What’s not on this collage? I don’t have anything overtly representing another child, nor anything regarding the possibility of buying a house this year. Adam and I are hoping to buy a house – maybe that big king-sized bed is a nice home waiting for us at the end of the year!

I do have other goals for 2013. I want to learn to wild harvest nettles and devils club. I want to get back to my yoga practice. I want to learn to make a variety of Asian cuisines.

Overall, that tarot reading for the year ahead makes me want to collapse on the floor and yell out ‘you win, Universe! Uncle!’ But my collage brings me joy and I feel inspired to tackle what comes.

What do you think your year holds for you?

Maxim Monday: Vote

I didn’t double-check, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t a Delphic Maxim. Democracy comes from the Greeks, even if only the non-slave males were given the opportunity to vote. The Unites States doesn’t have a direct democracy, which really only functions best among thousands of people. But we do have democracy, and I’m a fan of it. I don’t use this blog for my political thoughts (although you can be certain I have many). Doing our civic duty is an ancient pagan value and so I’m using today’s post to encourage you to vote.

There are those in the US who would prefer if only land-holding, business-owning, morally upright, white folk could vote. Every time a person of color, a woman, someone in the LGBTQ community, a member of a religious minority votes, I consider that a radical act. Sure, many people among those groups are not radical, and plenty of people vote for the very forces that would oppress them. Still: exercise your constitutional right to vote.

The presidential election is a circus. I don’t consider the differences between Obama and Romney to be all that significant. If you don’t want to vote for either of those, may I suggest that you look to third parties for inspiration? The Green and Libertarian parties have worthy candidates, and I support the growth of third (and fourth and fifth) parties, in order to move away from the bipartisan domination of discourse in the US.

It’s not just the presidential election that matters, either. If you feel your vote doesn’t count at a national level (and there’s a strong argument for that), it most certainly does at the state and local levels. Vote for your representatives; see what’s pressing for your city or county.

I won’t suggest economic policy or national strategy to you, but I’d like to put in a plug for a couple of things, namely love and civil liberties. My hope is that every vote cast tomorrow is a vote for love, for the rights of families of all stripes, and for the protection of my freedoms as a female. I urge you to seek out candidates that will represent ALL of their citizenry: be they gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, ‘Other,’ or atheist – and everything in between. It’s much harder to work for the benefit of all, but it’s the only way forward.

Go forth and vote! Vote for love!

Fairy tales

My relationship with fairy tales is complicated. I loved them growing up. I enjoyed the Disney animated versions – mostly the old school Disney ones; I was 14 when The Little Mermaid was released (the beginning of the ‘newer’ era of Disney animation). That one in particular I adored: the singing, the underwater motif, the bright colors, the music.

But discovering feminism in my early 20s killed that love dead. And for good reason. I look back the tropes of Disney fairy tales, especially the more recent crop, and I shudder. The Little Mermaid is especially awful. The mermaid, Ariel, actually gives up her voice, to win the prince. Everything is surface level attraction. Being pretty is the highest ideal for girls and women. The female characters do very little. They are made magical via some external source and the kiss of the prince is what saves them.

Looking back on my adolescence I see how insidious this was, and how I fell prey to it. Throw on my own performance anxiety and I was a hot mess, ripe for the allure that something outside myself could save me, would make me special (above and against all other girls – specifically girl), that I would then win the Boy and through my connection with him be considered fantastic. Which is ironic seeing as how I dated the band nerd for most of high school (it should also be known that he was kind, funny and a musical genius, and sadly I lived vicariously through his talents).

I also loved the Grimm Brothers versions of fairy tales. My mother had two beautiful cloth editions of the tales, one brown Grimm Brothers, the other a blue Hans Christian Anderson edition. I knew that the ‘original’ tales were more complex, bloody, mean, and interesting. But I hadn’t revisited those books in two decades. Not until I had a child of my own.

My 4-year-old son adores being read to. One day he went to the bookshelf and pulled down the brown book of Grimm’s’ fairy tales. We are now working our way through both volumes. Strange bedtime stories, indeed! And yet, we both enjoy the odd tales. He gets scared, indignant (he often will insist that his alter ego, Laserer Dalek, will intercede and set things to rights), and triumphant. He loves the last line about how the couple ends up married happily for the rest of their days.

What I’m learning from re-reading these tales is just how excellent they are as morality tales and as a magical primer. I am sure there are many books written on both of these topics, but it’s not an area I’ve done a lot of critical reading on. I remember reading a short news article by a child psychologist suggesting that the violence in fairy tales (the older versions) was more than suitable for little minds, and was in fact helpful. Little children are dealing with issues of power in their own lives (big enough to think and do, but not big enough to do what they imagine, and they can’t quite read the rules or even know what all of the rules are, etc). Their own physical urges get to be acted out through the stories. Having a four-year old of my own, that makes a lot of sense to me!

What I’m learning is that the values demonstrated in the stories are ones I like: be kind and generous, greed is almost always a person’s downfall, cleverness can be good or bad, but depends on the quality of the clever person’s heart, keeping your word is of utmost importance, those in power can be overcome/overthrown/replaced by a clever person, there will be many obstacles in life so meet them with all your wits and courage and heart. These things work whether male or female. Yes, there are some archaic gender roles in the stories, and the witches are always old ladies, but these are not as problematic to me in their own context as I was expecting them to be.

Magically, my son and I are learning that 3, 7, and 9 are magic numbers, that what makes a spell is often its undoing, that plants and animals have spirits, that kindness to others extends to all living things, not just humans, that plants and animals can be our guides and helpers if we learn to communicate with them, that men and women can create magic, that there are consequences to our actions, both magical and mundane. I think these ‘magical’ lessons are also rather excellent lessons in general!

So fairy tales have been on the tip of my tongue lately. This made my trip to see Snow White and the Huntsman more enjoyable than it otherwise might have been. If you’ve not seen the movie, please be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, let me say that my expectation of the film was this: weak plot, beautiful effects, pretty to look at, weak actress in Kristen Stewart. I was right on – and I still walked out of the theatre loving this movie.

Cinematically, it’s both beautifully done, interesting and compelling AND ALSO weak, inconsistent, and tedious. The pacing could have been better for sure. Several of the criticisms I’ve read from various places seem to forget that this is a fairy tale: plot is already weak, characters are already thin, tropes are what they are. What might be weaknesses (and are) in modern story telling, actually make me enjoy the film more for its acceptance of the fairy tale trope!

As far as the fairy tale was concerned, I thought it had many of the elements I praised above: the quality of a person’s heart is their beauty and strength, kindness and communication allows us connection to others, both human and non-human, power can be overcome and undone, power-with is greater than power-over, males and  females both can be agents of magic and power. There were many beautiful moments in this film. The graphics were incredible. I loved the black shattering glass men, the fairies, the colors and textures and all around griminess of the sets and costumes. The use of the white hart was heart-stoppingly beautiful (and seemed like an homage to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke). I enjoyed how this was a love story and not a love story at the same time.

But let’s talk about the absolute best part of the film: Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen. I sincerely hope she wins an Oscar for this performance, because she was amazing. She turned what could have been a one-dimensional Evil Queen into a complex, rich, evil queen who inspired pity and curiosity, fear and wonder in me. The rich symbolism that was used to spell out her corruption were joys to behold: the black throne carved with medieval skeletons, the ornate costumes, the abundance of ravens. With this character we see the Dark Arts employed: scrying, shape shifting, vampirism (both energetic and cannabilistic in the form of eating raw animal hearts). We see the cost of magic, of power. Power isn’t necessarily bad or evil, but the greed and obsession that fuels the Queen’s magic is. We see the profound toll this has on the individual and those surrounding her.

Ms. Magazine’s blog has a post on the reasons not to see this movie. I can see their points, but I think they miss the big fairy tale picture. I also disagree with their idea that this film vilifies female aging. I think it actually makes the reverse point: that avoiding aging, that the beauty that women have to cling to for power in this world, is unnatural and corrupting, that merely physical beauty is limiting and constricting.

The Evil Queen and Theron’s acting is the complete antithesis of Snow White, particularly as acted by Kristen Stewart. Stewart’s Snow White is vapid, confused, limp and pathetic. The character could have emphasized the beauty of will, strength of heart, compassion, and the magical connection that is created when relationship is forged – whether with trolls, humans, dwarves or birds. We are told of these things, not shown. Stewart’s Snow White has no spine and I felt cheated at the end when she returns to life and gives her impassioned speech. When she duels the Evil Queen I felt with bitterness that Stewart was unworthy to be Theron’s foil. Any anti-feminist sentiment about this movie can most likely be blamed entirely on Stewart (and perhaps on the director who thought her interpretation was ok). While the dialog was not remarkable, the character, situations and people around Snow White indicated that a level of subtlety was intended, and was grossly missing from Stewart’s portrayal.

Despite the serious flaws in this film I will happily watch it again. I love the resurgence of magic and fairy tales in cinema – from Hiyao Miyazaki’s animation, to Pan’s Labyrinth, to these sorts of retellings. I’m also happy to be exploring fairy tales again in their written form. I have much to learn.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think? Do you have favorite fairy tales? If so, what are they?

Moondays

I’m going to discuss Female Things, like fertility and menstruation, so if this is not your cup of tea, I’ll just say  – thanks for stopping by! – and wish you well on your way. This will likely be a little TMI for some.

When I started this project my baby girl was five months old. I was exclusively breastfeeding her and it wasn’t until last month (at 12.5 months postpartum) that my period returned. Like girls beginning to menstruate for the first time, the postpartum body takes several cycles (anywhere from one to over a year) to ‘normalize’ – find its rhythm and flow, literally. I am in the midst of my second postpartum period, and it’s a doozy.

Hot on the heels of last week’s virus I began bleeding. When I was a teen I had crippling menstrual cramps. Humiliatingly crippling. I once crawled on hands and knees through my high school hallways to get to the nurse. In college, I was once carried out of the dining hall bathroom back to my dorm because I was unable to stand, let alone walk. That kind of thing no longer happens to me. Birth has aided me in that area. But I’m bleeding more than I ever have since I was about 13.

It hits me in waves. I may be tired but I can focus and function, and then WHAM: I’m dizzy, exhausted. I can’t focus. I’m light-headed and the focus of my body is in my pelvis. Plans for even menial tasks are out the window. In some ways, it reminds me of being pregnant. I don’t get light-headed and unable to focus, but my center of gravity is lower. My body feels thicker, heavier – not necessarily in a weight and size way, but as if my blood is magnetized and connecting more viscerally with the iron in the earth.

This changes my perception of the world around me and profoundly affects my spiritual practice. During pregnancy and menstruation I feel less up in my head; Talky Self is less engaged and Fetch, my more primal soul, is at the forefront. I don’t want to think, I want to Be. This is a needed and welcome change for me – when I can alter my life and expectations to suit that shift.

My spiritual practice the last couple of days has been disjointed. I haven’t had the energy to take my practice outside, or to work on putting together my outside altar. This morning I sat on my cushion and lit a red egg candle. I feel fertile and bloody and fully enfleshed. Primal. I feel like I connect more deeply with Kali and the goddesses who in my mind sit on the Red side of things: Inanna, Ishtar, Lilith, Babalon. I am considering deepening my relationship with them and focusing my practice during my ‘moondays’ on them. I feel I relate a lot more now than otherwise.

I certainly don’t consider menstruation an impurity. I may feel sticky and messy and achy, but I know that the process is one of purification. This process allows me to have children. As a woman who chooses to have children, I am grateful for this. I am grateful that I no longer live a life where I have to ‘suck it up’ and continue on as if I’m not bleeding. Our society has no room for the mysteries of fertility, for Women’s Things.

None of this particularly lines up with place or Shinto. Perhaps as my outdoor practice becomes routine I’ll feel differently. Maybe next month will be a different experience entirely.

I’d love to hear from other women: how has menstruation affected your spiritual practice or experience? How do you accommodate it? Thoughts?

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part three

When I left off last time I was married, miserable and crying during prayers. (You can read part one and part two here.) Let us continue my testimony and find out what shape my Christianity took next.

Without getting into the gory and very personal details I’ll sum up what happened next: I jumped ship. I fell in love with a woman and got a divorce. In that order.

At this point I felt like I had tried the traditional Christian rules/path for long enough. I was listening, I was enduring, I was praying, but the responses (and at times lack of response) I was getting from On High did not line up with what traditional Christianity was telling me I should be hearing. It was time to start listening honestly to the ‘still, small voice within.’

Having said that, I was still committed to my spiritual path, which was still Christianity. I recognized then, as I do now, that there are so many beautiful parts of this tradition. I wasn’t ready to give that up. When I was exploring Catholicism I had remembered the third ‘branch’ of Christianity, a rather big, old and gnarled trunk that those of us in the West generally forget about: Eastern Orthodoxy.

Juneau has its own Russian Orthodox church, St. Nicholas, established in 1894. It’s a very iconic part of the town, even though most people have never set foot inside! I decided to check it out…. and I fell in love. I loved the liturgy, the incense, the icons. I loved that all of the congregation was allowed to join in the chanting and singing – and that in Orthodoxy a service cannot take place without two people: a priest and one other, as the liturgy is truly a back and forth conversation, not simply the priest doing all the work. (I would later discover that most Orthodox churches only let the formal choir do the chanting, which I think is a pity and makes services especially dull and passive.) I loved that Orthodoxy has always been in the vernacular, and this church said the ‘Our Father’ prayer in many languages, which represented the people in the congregation. At that time, there were Romanian-, Tlingit- (the indigenous people of my part of SE Alaska), Yupik-, and Russian-speaking congregants, in addition to English-only-speakers.

I ended up living with my girlfriend in an apartment directly across the street from the church. I would run across for services in my slippers. What is interesting is that my personal life was never mentioned. I kept it to myself – neither raising it, nor hiding it. I knew that the Orthodox Church, as an institution, wasn’t gay-friendly.

At the time the community had three priests, one of whom became a good friend to me. We would meet for coffee dates and talk music, books, theology, life. He gave me a small polished rock and a vial of holy oil, both of which I have kept with me all these years. The priest knew about my personal life and, while he didn’t seem to personally object, he towed the line of the Church (I have found this to be the case with many Orthodox believers). He also gave me a piece of advice regarding observing Lent that has positively impacted my life in many ways.

Many religions, particularly the mystic strains, use fasting as a discipline for deeper spiritual connection. My only exposure to fasting at this point had been in a vaguely Catholic way. I never really liked listening to Protestant Christians talk about Lent. Giving up chocolate for Lent seemed to miss the point entirely. But the Orthodox? Those guys know about fasting. They fast for just about anything, covering nearly half the year (not all at once though)! They don’t give up all food or water; they give up five things: meat, dairy, olive oil, alcohol and sex. Giving up olive oil isn’t a big deal for us today, but in the Mediterranean region, back in the day, olive oil was an indispensible part of cooking and living. Giving that up was a huge hardship. For my first Lent I tried to do it all. But here’s what my priest friend said: set yourself up for success, not failure.

Fasting isn’t supposed to be a contest in which we prove how holy or hardcore we are. Fasting is a tool for going deeper into the spiritual life. I personally think that fasting can be very useful, particularly for those of us for whom food is plentiful. If trying to ‘go all the way’ meant that I was slipping all the time and/or beating myself up for that, I would be missing the point. Maybe just give up meat. Or meat and alcohol. Set myself up for success, so that I might reap the benefits of the practice. I have used this advice in many areas of my life. Not that I should always go easy and never challenge myself, but I should instead assess what the goal of the activity is and then work to achieve that as best I can.

I decided that olive oil didn’t matter to me, so I didn’t give that up. It’s not a ‘thing’ for me, culinarily or culturally. I don’t remember that I gave up sex. I think that if you’ve got a partner that isn’t observing then asking him or her to abstain is forcing a fast on some one else. But I vent vegan and gave up alcohol. And since that time, even after waking away from Christianity, I have enjoyed observing Lent. I thought the Lenten fast was a good physical spring cleaning.

I spent about two years attending St. Nick’s. It was during this time that two more very important spiritual developments occurred in my life: I got to the know the Virgin Mary (aka the Theotokos, in Orthodox terms) and I started reading actual feminist theology, both Christian and not-specifically Christian. Books that made an impact on me were Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, Merlin Stone’s When God was a Woman, Jean Markale’s The Great Goddess (Markale is of questionable scholarly repute, but at the time this book was huge for me), and Tikvah Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses (this last one is by a Jewish Near Eastern scholar, and while the work throws ancient Paganism under the bus, it is still a very valuable contribution to the field of feminist theologies). Yes, those were the sorts of books I was reading for fun. In the back of my head I planned to attend graduate school in religious studies and these books fueled that desire.

The Orthodox Church was a good fit for me. Mysticism is a valuable and pervasive part of the Church as a whole, culturally, theologically, liturgically. Mysticism and personal practice are not afterthoughts, but are at the core of the Church and its practices. Many homes have an icon corner. Priests bless homes and boats. During the month of January priests bless the waters, because the earth is part of God’s creation too. The current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is considered the ‘green Patriarch’ for his extensive work on environmental issues. The entirety of life and the world is part of the spiritual life.

Part of this mysticism is the Church’s adoration of the Theotokos, a word which means ‘god-bearer’ in Greek. She who bore God. It’s a paradox, something which Orthodoxy revels in. I am a fan of mysticism and of paradox.

Unfortunately, for all the joys of Orthodoxy and its beautiful and rather liberating theology, the Church is mired in social conservatism. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into, but I was not a good fit for the Church: queer, feminist, and outspoken. I was getting more critical of Christianity, the more I lived, the more I read. But the beauty of the Theotokos kept me in Christianity.

After a year or so, my girlfriend and I moved to Seattle. I pursued music studies and worked at bookstores, while she pursued her education as well. I attended church infrequently. I kept reading. I started looking around on the internet and my feminist spiritual searching started turning up Wicca resources. I took this in. There was so much that was helpful and felt right at home!

I discovered that much of Wicca and goddess worship was not in fact some weird anti-Christian devil worship, but most of the time just called divinity by a female name (very subversive). There was a reverence for nature and connection with divinity through it – I could completely relate to that. There were other attitudinal shifts with which I also resonated. I felt empowered by the way that Wiccans created their own altars and led their own rituals. Many of those pieces made perfect sense from my understanding of ‘traditional’ liturgical theory and practice. I hungered for more, but the internet ten years ago did not so easily offer up information and community at that time. Plus, Angelfire and Geocities websites, particularly with the sparkly purple and black aesthetic so often used by witches and Pagans, were visually awkward and off-putting.

I practiced setting up an altar in the bedroom. I practiced meditating with a candle. I walked and walked and walked around the neighborhood listening to what I was hearing and sensing: birds, clouds, the concrete under my feet, blossoms, wind. A house on one of the corners had enormous rosemary plants growing. I took some sprigs from the parts that overflowed onto the sidewalk (I did knock on the door to ask permission, but no one answered). I look back now and I’m positive it was a Pagan household! I just couldn’t recognize it so easily at the time.

My partner wasn’t thrilled with this development. She’d been only loosely supportive of my spiritual leanings. I applied to grad school entirely without support from her. Our relationship was suffering and pulling apart at the seams. My going off to Berkeley for graduate school was too much, highlighting many of the problems we had, and I broke up her. Rather badly, too, I have to admit.

A quote I’ve long loved is the quote below by Pat Robertson:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

PAT ROBERTSON, fundraising letter, 1992

(taken from this website)

I find it amusing that discovering feminism did indeed lead to me leaving my husband, becoming a lesbian, and practicing witchcraft! I may not want to destroy capitalism, but I sure do want to overhaul it. But I’ll not kill my children, thanks.

My book to review for this section is the Russian spiritual classic, The Pilgrim’s Tale. Next up in my testimony is what happened when I went to graduate school. Stay tuned.

The Cost of Discipleship, the Cost of Being a Woman and Other

Let me just get this out of the way: I am not really enjoying this quarter. This is good information. Sitting with this discomfort is educational, insightful. But not fun or juicy or exciting. I surprise myself every week with just how Not Christian I am. Oh, do I miss the practices and mindsets of the previous two quarters! I can’t not practice, so I lightly say my prayers and do a few breathing exercises. But oh, how I miss my practice.

Revisiting things that once held meaning for me is both tedious and informative. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I studied Bonhoeffer in college. I wrote my senior history thesis on him. And I barely remember anything about him, other than: influential Lutheran German pastor, who resisted the Nazi co-option of the German church and joined the resistance movement, eventually being sent to concentration camps, where he was killed just days before the liberation. I believe I wrote about how he reconciled his Christian pacifist ideology with joining the resistance movement, which worked to assassinate Hitler. At least, I think it was. You might remember that my memory from this stretch of my life is minimal, at best.

I remember really liking The Cost of Discipleship. I’ve kept a copy on my bookshelf all these years. I connect Bonhoeffer with integrity in my mind, with doing the right thing in trying circumstances, with staying true to one’s beliefs and treating his fellow prisoners, as well as his captors, with dignity and love. Those thoughts haven’t changed one bit in my re-reading. However, I’ll be removing this book from my library. I can’t understand what about it I could have possibly found edifying (ha! great Christian word there).

Before we go any further, let me admit: I haven’t finished the book. I only re-read the first third. I can’t do it. I just don’t care. Besides Bonhoeffer being far more traditional and conservative than I remember, his book is basically by a man for men who need a male saviour.

In the beginning of the book Bonhoeffer writes about how grace has been cheapened. I think he would weep were he to witness the rise of mega-churches, prosperity gospel preaching, and mainstream American evangelicalism (which I think is basically cultural Christianity and not much connected with the gospels). “The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that is has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (p. 35)

The majority of the first part of the book is about obedience: obedience to The Call, to Jesus. Let it be known that obedience has never been my strong suit. Rules apply to me only if I like the rules. This has been a sticking point for my spiritual development my whole life. But I also have a romantic view of discipleship. I intellectually recognize the wisdom that obeying can have – I’d better, I’m a parent! But the extent to which Bonhoeffer insists we obey Jesus – no questions, just following – worries me. Bonhoeffer writes about the ways in which we use our questions to attempt to ‘outsmart’ our would-be saviours, to avoid the hard work of Becoming (my language). He makes a really good point here. But the opportunity for maturation is not the point. He goes on to say that “…only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” (p. 63) “Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience.” (p. 73) Yikes.

While I can see that excessive questioning can be a form of self-delusion and avoidance of actually doing the Work, I think it is healthy to question. In fact, I think it is our duty to question. Jesus challenged the Powers that Be, the status quo. The implication that we ought never question our spiritual authority (be that God or the Bible – a document put together by men, even if I agree that it is divinely inspired, or a pastor) because we are only sinful humans steals our human agency from us. Many Christians don’t have a problem with this. I believe the example of Adam and Eve in the garden is all most people need to say ‘yup, humans can’t be trusted.’ But Jesus was also fully human, even if he was infinitely wiser than we are by virtue of being also fully divine,* he was still fully human, and he was not satisfied with the status quo. Blind obedience is problematic for all living things. It is even more problematic for women and other marginalized people.

Women suffer uniquely in communities where questioning is discouraged. The kind of Christianity described by Bonhoeffer may win points for its integrity, but not for its compassion or sense of community. The pastors in Christianity like this are almost always male, and if a woman were to question her lot in life or her struggle then she would likely be told that she is questioning God’s Order. I have no sources to cite from this particular book, but after years of studying feminist theology and from living my own life I know there are scores of books (and blogs) that address this very phenomenon. God (who is He and male) knows best, the Bible (in spite of being written 1900 years ago in a specific time, place and culture) is the Way It Should Be, and Pastor (likely male) knows if you’re being obedient. All Others need to tow the line and know their places.

Obedience usually leads to a discussion of suffering, and this book does not disappoint. Like Roman Catholic theology, suffering is the center of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity. The point of Jesus is rejection and suffering. His crucifixion “must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity…” (p. 87) Why?? Why does giving of self have to equate with rejection? I reject all of this as completely untrue! Even in a Christian context I reject this as Not True. I believe that Jesus could have still accomplished the Christian message if everyone present at that time was mortified by his execution, if his followers and fellow Jews hadn’t rejected him but had instead embraced him. Suffering is NOT a divine necessity.

Suffering occurs in this life. We cannot have life without suffering. Learning to make sense of that is important, whether or not we follow a spiritual path. Jesus, by being part of this human existence and by fighting the Powers That Be, had to embrace suffering. What is to me the heart of the Christian message is that when suffering and death and rejection occur (because they occur to us all at some point, in some form) resurrection is possible. Suffering is not the core of the message, resurrection is. We rise again, in glory. We rise again, glorified.

“Suffering, then, is the true badge of discipleship” (p. 91) says Bonhoeffer. Once again women and other marginalized people lose out when this is the core of a theology. We already have noted the culture of not questioning. A woman in an unhappy marriage, a slave being a …well, slave, a child being abused by his parents – they are true disciples because they are not questioning the systems of the status quo and are enduring their suffering. People who choose not to suffer are then considered disobedient, less faithful, not True Christians. People who choose not to suffer are denying Jesus, in this context. Who are true disciples of Christ, according to Bonhoeffer? “They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake.” (p. 109, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s) How can we bear anything for Christ’s sake? If he bore all for us, what can we possibly bear for God? How does our suffering improve or profit anything?? It profits nothing. I see it as a way to prove that one person is holier than another, or worse, a way to keep women and other marginalized people in their place.

I have no problem with a theology that has place for suffering, but when it is the crux of the faith then the only way into heaven is through suffering. To that I say, every one deserves in to heaven then, because everyone suffers. Or, change the fulcrum on which the tradition balances. I choose not to be obedient or to suffer, not in the Christian context, not according to patriarchal tradition of Western civilization. I will not be obedient to a deity or spiritual leader that insists I deny my own suffering, that I increase my suffering, that I submit to patriarchal status quo systems of injustice, on the flawed logic that we live in a fallen world and only Jesus will make it better…. in the world to come.

To some it may seem like I’m taking Bonhoeffer way out of context or addressing him in anachronistic terms. He was man writing during World War II. When he says things like “What can the call to discipleship mean to-day for the worker, the business man, the squire and the soldier?” (p. 38) am I being a deliberate trouble maker by pointing out that he has excluded women from the list? Sure, a woman is a worker, but so are business men. I believe he is listing by class. He doesn’t mention the mother, which might be the main ‘job’ of women at that time. No, women are left out of this entire discussion of discipleship.

In this book there is an entire chapter titled “Woman.” Great! I thought, here he will address the 51% of the population! No. It’s an entire chapter on Jesus’s teaching on divorce and whether male disciples should marry. This chapter is not about women at all. If this is the only context for women, then we are merely equated with male desires and functions.

After getting to this point in the book I just threw my hands up and decided it’s time to move on. This is one of the reasons I quit my PhD program. I am beyond tired of this sort of theology: written by men for male believers in a male saviour who saves men.

*I actually think we – all of us – are fully human and fully divine already and that the point of the Incarnation was revealing that to us. The work of the spiritual life is to embrace both, to be Whole.