In which I explore my sacred compass

Stone street in Girona, Spain.

Why do we do what we do and what inspires our personal mission and direction? Words and texts become a sacred compass, directing our lives in ways that form and inform our work and calling. Words, the ones that stick, land in my heart and gut and make themselves at home in the very being of my soul. They are the “Hail Mary’s” that, even today, jump to mind as I start a particularly scary trip by myself. They are the hymns that accompany me into the week and run like a soundtrack in my mind throughout my daily tasks. And there are the books that overflow my shelves and remind me that my place in the world, as a woman, is valid and needed and required to heal our broken world. Words – in songs, in books, in mission statements, and even on bumper stickers, have influenced the direction of my life and moved me forward on my path to work for social justice. In particular, Sue Monk Kidd’s work from the mid-1990s to this year reflects my spiritual struggles and has directed my path toward exploration of the Divine Feminine.

Our favorite scriptures, texts, or songs, whether consciously or unconsciously, undergird a personal formation or theology that influences our thoughts, actions, and careers throughout our lives. In “Biblical Revelation and Social Existence,” James Cones notes Werner Stark’s references of the “‘axiological grid,’ which every person develops in childhood before the age of reflection.”[1] In other words, children’s values are shaped very early and make a lasting impression on the young. This certainly was true for me. Raised in the Catholic Church, I remember skipping into the church and looking forward to singing. The post-Vatican II folk music touched my heart and stuck with me more than any prayer, creed, or sermon. It was the hymns that stayed with me both then and over the years. Make Me an Instrument of Peace, Be Not Afraid and They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love, were foundational to my grade-school theology and view of the world.

In contrast to these songs that lifted my spirits and soothed my soul, I, as a girl, was not allowed to serve on the altar. At some point, I began to notice the discrepancy between what we sang, what was done, and, more importantly, how it made me feel. Was I, in some way, less holy than the boys who carried the cross and the candles and served the priest at the altar?

It did not take long as a Catholic attending a southern liberal arts college, to recognize that I couldn’t align my growing feminism with the Christian church. While I believed wholeheartedly in what James Cone describes as the “theology of the marginalized,” I didn’t see myself reflected in the leadership or scholarship of the church of the mid-1980s. Instead, I studied Eastern Religions and took seminars on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi. Reading King’s “Letters from A Birmingham Jail,” as a college student, inspired me to questions practices at my college, including documenting a College Trustee’s systematic erasure of Black-owned homes from the entrance road leading to the college, because he didn’t like how they looked. Reading Gandhi and then watching the movie inspired me to participate in a peace-making coalition with the Gandhi Peace Foundation in India the summer before my senior year. I added “We Shall Overcome” in English and Hindi as part of my hymn collection that inspired my peace-making and social justice work. I organized student volunteers for CROP walks to raise awareness about hunger, tutor students in afterschool programs, and visit people in prison. My “doing” became my faith and how I showed love in the world. I traveled to India again, thinking I would find answers there – both in the images of the divine feminine represented Indian goddesses and in service. When I returned, what started as a student organizer led to a series of careers in addressing social injustice – primarily focused on affordable housing. “Think Globally, Act Locally” became my bumper-sticker theology, and I continued my path as a do-er of social justice work.

            Some books and authors change the course of one’s life, and for me, that was Sue Monk Kidd and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Women’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. Reading it with my book club of young professional women who were all balancing work and motherhood, I felt the truth of her words as an electric jolt running through my entire being. This! This what I had been looking for as a young girl in the church and a student in college. Her words expressed an essential truth for me that the words we use to describe and speak about the Divine matter.

The second thing I wrote down that day was that exclusive male imagery of the Divine not only instilled an imbalance within human consciousness, it legitimized patriarchal power in the culture at large. Here alone is enough reason to recover the Divine Feminine, for there is a real and undeniable connection between the repression of the feminine in our deity and the repression of women. [2]

Recently, reading Susan VanZanten’s, “Reading as Spiritual Practice” reinforced how I felt about finding Sue Monk Kidd when I did. VanZanten notes:

Literature and faith have frequently intertwined. Qualities important to both – imagination, an intuition of transcendence, the human drive to make contact with others, a sense of moral abstract values, and the unique knowledge conveyed through metaphorical thinking – are all associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. [3]

VanZanten reminded me of the critical importance of finding and speaking one’s truth, whether in fiction or real life. Sue Monk Kidd gave voice to what my heart had been seeking, and she gave me the courage to recalibrate my compass. I learned that one’s spiritual direction could change as new information is received and digested. Most significantly, she gave me the knowledge that I wasn’t crazy thinking there was an inherent structural imbalance that privileged men that started with the Bible.  

I found that within early Christian history, there had been two traditions regarding women. The first we could call the revolutionary tradition, which included Jesus’ “feminist” and egalitarian intent and practice. This tradition, preaching a gospel of liberation and mutuality, treated women as equals. Evidence exists that Christian women carried out priestly functions – teaching, baptizing and blessing the Eucharist – on par with men. But soon another tradition asserted itself, the patriarchal tradition with its antifemale, body-negating spirituality, insisting on the dominate cultural taboos and sanctions concerning women. [4]

Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees continued my spiritual journey. In the story, a group of Black women embrace a young white runaway teenager and create community around a found statue of a Black Madonna. It gave me ideas about sacred rituals that were missing my life – the importance of feminine icons, the tradition of a wailing wall, and the circle of women who loved, supported, and protected each other. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing, although fiction, shared a reality that was as important as any scripture for me. It planted the seed that led me back to the Church as I sought a spiritual community when raising my young daughters. The United Church of Christ’s commitment to the ordination of women and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as its commitment to social justice in action, opened my heart to trying organized religion again. The rituals, the inclusive songs, the communion, and the community filled an empty hole in my heart and introduced me to religious leaders, both White and Black, who spoke of the Divine in ways that filled my heart and didn’t shut me down. Clergy shared prayers to “Divine Love,” “Spirit of Hope and Healing,” “Mother and Father to us all,” and “Eternal Spirit.” The words mattered. Inclusive descriptions of the Divine mattered. The language landed in my body differently than God the Father. Tears flowed. I felt seen and included in a way that I had never experienced before. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to open my heart to the Church and to Christ that I had always loved. Inclusive language in the Church moved me in my faith and also opened me to new work.

Indeed, sacred rhetoric, the words we believe most deeply in our hearts, directs our actions, both personally and professionally. Grounded in a faith community that supported me emotionally and spiritually, I left a comfortable position at the Community Foundation and became the CEO of Asheville’s YWCA in 2012. The YW’s mission, “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women and Promoting Peace, Justice, Freedom, and Dignity for All,” underscored all of my core beliefs. However, there was no hiding from this bold and ambitious mission statement posted in every hallway and over the water fountains. Every day was a challenge, but every day brought opportunities for creating community and addressing systemic racism and sexism both inside and outside the YWCA. Our collective awareness of intersectionality grew as our service to the community grew. We learned how to receive transgender members and make them feel welcome through clear signage, policies, and gender-neutral restrooms. We expanded the winter holidays’ celebration to recognize nine different faith traditions that our staff and members celebrated. And when in 2014, Michael Brown was murdered by police, soon to be followed by the documented murders of many other unarmed Black men and women, we started to create rituals to bear our collective grief. One way we did this was by creating our own “wailing wall” in the lobby of the YWCA, where anyone could express what they were feeling on a post-it-note and add it to the public, collective wall of lament. In hindsight, I wish I had the training and theological knowledge shared by reading Dr. Katie Cannon’s “Structured Academic Amnesia: As If This True Womanist Story Never Happened.” Much of my work at the YWCA required critical thinking and power analysis of our work internally and externally. Re-reading her in writing this essay encouraged me to use the assignment as a way to “bring the specificities of our autobiographical context into play.” [5] It allows me to confess that my work while fulfilling, was also sometimes soul-crushing and exhausting. In 2018 I took a much-needed sabbatical to recharge my batteries. Inspired by Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees and Traveling with Pomegranates, I explored Black Madonnas sites in five different European countries for three months. Both of my young adult daughters joined me for two-week segments of the pilgrimage.

My curiosity about the Divine Feminine, which started as a student thirty-five years ago, led me to learn about the church’s long-hidden scriptures. It made sense that the scriptures so carefully hidden in the caves near Nag Hammadi would share a truth that was forbidden almost 2000 years ago. I read the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. For me, these represented the “Revolutionary Tradition,” that Sue Monk Kidd referenced in Dance of the Dissident Daughter. These long-hidden noncanonical texts re-ignited my interest in religious studies and interested me in getting a Masters of Theological Studies. Vanderbilt Divinity’s “Purposes and Commitments” assured me that I found a place to continue exploring my faith and understanding theology more broadly. The fields of feminist and womanist theology simply did not exist or were just emerging when I was a college student.

Meanwhile, Sue Monk Kidd continues to write, research, and move the conversation around the Divine Feminine forward. The Book of Longings, her most recent and daring work published earlier this year, imagines Jesus married to an intelligent and feisty young woman. In the book, Anna, the protagonist, prays, “Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it.”[6]  I said a similar prayer as I began this new journey into theological studies. New words fill my days – Hermeneutics, Exegesis, Womanist, Ontological, and Cosmological. Thanks very largely to Sue Monk Kidd, my sacred compass is pointing me to learn, to stretch out of my comfort zone, and to be part of a new community that shares truly revolutionary values. Values that connect me to the early Christian Church. Values that include Generosity, Hospitality, Humility, Imagination, Patience, Reflexivity, and Respect. Words do, indeed, matter.

Bibliography:

Cannon, Katie G. “Structured Academic Amnesia: As If This Womanist Story Never Happened.” In Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society, 19–28. New York University Press, 2006.

Cone, James H. “Biblical Revelation, and Social Existence.” In From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christain Ethics, p 422. Grand Rapids, MI: Eermanns Publishing Company, 1995.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. New York: Viking, 2020.

———. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. 1st ed. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

VanZanten, Susan. “Reading as a Spiritual Practice.” Bearings Online, Spring 2015.

Foundation in Theology

Pillar Assignment 1: “From Sacred Rhetoric to Social Relevance”

“A Sacred Compass”

September 20, 2020


[1] Cone, James H., “Biblical Revelation and Social Existence,” in From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christain Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eermanns Publishing Company, 1995), p 422.

[2] Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, 1st ed (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996).

[3] Susan VanZanten, “Reading as a Spiritual Practice,” Bearings Online, Spring 2015.

[4] Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter.

[5] Cannon, Katie G., “Structured Academic Amnesia: As If This Womanist Story Never Happened,” in Deeper Shades of Purple:Womanism in Religion and Society (New York University Press, 2006), 19–28.

[6] Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings (New York: Viking, 2020).

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