Women’s Spirituality began in the 1970’s, a time of radical change and possibilities. The women’s movement was strong and we were reeling from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. The movement arose as a radical feminist reclamation of the divine feminine in the midst of a patriarchal world awash in motherless and abstracted God religions centered on a God who didn’t live here but in a distant place removed from the Earth.
The movement’s reclamation of the Mother Goddess had a powerful and catalyzing impact on many women who hadn’t even known the depth of their longing for a deity that was feminine. We came to understand that patriarchy and male-centered religions went hand in hand and that, to paraphrase Mary Daly, as long as we see God as only male, men will be seen as gods. Supported by archeological evidence and ancient myths, the
literature grew as more research revealed that there was once a Mother Goddess. Women’s Spirituality began to develop into a practice of rituals honoring birthing, mothering, physical and creative fertility, croning and dying. We wrote about women warriors, leaders, and ancient matrifocal communal organization. We were hot, feeling our potential and our natural beauty. We let our hair grow on our legs and under our arms, we released our month’s blood into the Earth, we gathered at the full moons, we gathered in moon lodges, we found our voice.
Yes, there was criticism of women’s scholarship as revisionist history, as a misinterpretation of the data to support our vision, and I’m sure this was in some cases true. But we also understood that the criticism had a shadow side. We were discovering that human culture wasn’t always this way, it wasn’t always patriarchal, women were not always oppressed, the Earth was not always seen as a non-sentient resource, God was not always male. There was a lot at stake for the patriarchy.
The Women’s Spirituality movement began as a fiery, radical, and creative revisioning of women’s herstory. It was an Earth-based practice that revered the Goddess of a thousand names and emanations, who lived right here on our Mother Earth. Women’s Spirituality held the potential to develop into a non-secular ecological religion, hairy roots and all. It held the potential to re-embed into our imaginations the essential truth that the Earth’s vegetative cycles of seed, plant, fruition, death and rebirth are not separate from human life cycles. It participated in the belief that all creation is sentient.
Originally our understanding was that Goddess is the fructifying power in the cosmos. She is the flow, the source, the great moving round, the ineffable that moves through all life. We adopted the personifications of her from older cultures and worked to find vestiges of her pre-patriarchal origin stories. We needed images and stories to balance or dissolve the old man in the sky we had been raised with. But we did not understand Her as human or as a singular mono-theistic being. We understood Her as the great Wild Mover of life. The Mystery. Women’s Spirituality was not about transcendence over life. It wasn’t about looking good. It wasn’t about purity or perfect health. It wasn’t above all about having control. And it wasn’t about privileging the human over the ineffable or the psyche over dirt. In its deepest heart it was about making alliances with Mother Earth, acknowledging our inescapable biological dependence on Her and living accordingly and beautifully with Her. As the Dine people say, it was finding a way to walk the beauty way. While Women’s Spirituality originally concerned itself with
women’s healing, it was always understood in the context of our culture and the Earth. Women’s healing meant every being’s healing. It was aboutdeveloping the courage to speak truth to power, to birth a new culture.
Then something happened. By the mid nineties what began as a juicy, energized and potent Earth-revering movement had become an almost wholly human-centered practice devoted to personal healing. I think many streams contributed to this shift and I can’t speak to all of them, but history tells us that dominant cultures inevitably absorb radical movements that seek to change them. And certainly this happened to Women’s Spirituality.
The same creative foment that gave rise to the Women’s Spirituality movement also gave rise to radical new psychological theories and methods of healing. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s we increasingly focused on psychological introspection and contemplation. It was natural that women who had been participating in Women’s Spirituality carried that powerful form into their personal healing. We need powerful ways to attend to our families, to work with our fears, and to find our voice. Over time, with few exceptions, the practice became one of rituals that were about self-empowerment and self-healing. We correlated the Earth’s cycles less and less to our biological and reciprocal relationship with Her and more and more we put our human psyche at the center of the round. Trickster-like, the goal of embodiment and relation with dirt and stars, the goal of restoring a sane and living ecological spiritual practice that included the feminine, had morphed into a self-help movement.
There developed from this shift a kind of workshop mentality, a weekend spiritual practice. We weren’t engaged with Mother Earth, the Spirits, our Ancestors in our daily lives. In between our gatherings, we didn’t feel the urgency that it mattered how we lived except to our personal selves. We attended rituals and then we left for our lives of family and work until the next gathering which we would attend if all else was equal in our lives or if we felt like it or if . . . .
Women’s Spirituality eventually fell victim to the same disease of derangement and disconnection that it had sought to heal. This is not to disparage our need to heal and any personal healing that happened in our circles. And perhaps it is a testament to the benevolence of Spirit that even so, we were helped. Perhaps our Ancestors and the elemental beings can read our true hearts and as compassionate Elders they blessed us anyway. I like to think that they were glad to see us edging our way to them.
Finding Women’s Spirituality was life-changing for me, a woman who had grown up in the Methodist Church devoid of any feminine figure, a woman who longed for what Rita Gross has called “a useable spiritual past.” And here suddenly were these divine powers embodied in the feminine. Like many, I was starving and so I came to the table. And until the richness and depth leached out of the practice, the food was good. A few years ago, I attended a Native American Sun Dance as a visitor. I’ll never forget the urgency and commitment with which the dancers danced and the old women supported them, those old women who had to raise the money to travel there, who were struggling with physical burdens and who still showed up. Watching them, I understood that there was no choice involved – to not show up was to risk the future and the healing power of the dancers’ prayers. It wasn’t a choice, it was an imperative. Women still need empowerment and we are in the dire situation that without the power of women’s deepest knowing, without the power of the feminine, the Earth as we know Her and all her children, including us, will not survive. Given the urgency of the times, we can no longer afford to put ourselves at the center of our concerns. We may even have to turn away from our own pain, when possible, to tend to feeding Her, just as we do for our children and beloveds.
When we privilege human-centered healing over the work of healing the World Soul, and when we misunderstand personal work as a sufficient response to the cries of the planet, we create and sustain the illusion that human healing is possible while the oceans suffocate, while the Earth is poisoned, while species become extinct.
We certainly are suffering and our suffering is real. Because we’re under the spell of the cultural story that our illness and healing are personal quests and that full, constant, vibrant health is possible, enchanted, we continually strive for self improvement. We assume that because we don’t feel better or complete or whole that we’re somehow deficient, that we haven’t done enough healing. This makes us vulnerable to a commercial market that would have us buy more products, try yet another healing modality, attend another workshop because after all our endeavors, we still suffer. We suffer because the deepest on-going sources of our pain are more historical and cultural than personal. We are suffering from home sickness, we are suffering from undiagnosed ancestral grief and we are beset by the demons of that unacknowledged history. We are sharing the jeopardy of a sickened Earth. It is no news to many that we
need a new story. A story to live by that supports all life. It works all too well to sustain a sick culture for us to keep looking for personal solutions to what is really a cultural disease. Women’s Spirituality arose at a particular time and place. It began as an ecological spiritual practice, then mutated into a personal healing method, and now is at a new threshold – that place where the wheat, the essential nutrition, is separated from the chaff. It is time to understand our personal stories and sufferings, those deep strata that run through our lives, as the portals we must enter to take us across. The world speaks to us. The animals, the soil, the weather beings are calling out to us. Will we once again use all the knowledge we’ve gathered over the past forty years to embrace that larger work that is ours to do?
If so, there are many questions to carry. How do we shift our separatist Westernized minds to a more indigenous mind? How do we shift our language to enable the shift in our minds? How do we live our commitments like the old women at the Sun Dance? How do we develop a relationship with our dead, our Ancestors and Spirit? How do we learn to understand our unique paths and stories, including our trauma, as portals that open us to the Holy and through which the Holy speaks to us? How do we devote ourselves to what matters and shed the rest?
How do we take humans out of the center and put them back into web of All Our Relations (as the Dine say). How do we begin to relate to the Earth, the other animals, the wind, the water, the air, the fire that ignites the seed, in a real way? How do we learn to live in alliance with what Martin Prechtel calls the “great proceedance of life”? How do we bring ourselves back into the sacred relation with the Earth? Might we find a way to relate personal issues back to a larger understanding of our derangement from life that started thousands of years ago?
Must we insist on feeling better? Or good or peaceful? As the Iroquois woman Barbara Alice Mann has said, “nothing is personal.” Can we take our cue from women in other cultures who, strengthened by their spirituality, stand up for sanctity of women’s bodies,
sanctity of the Earth our Mother, like the old Sun Dance women? All of us whose Ancestors came to this country, to differing degrees, have been severed from the Holy Earth for hundreds of years. We descend from war, immigration, amnesia, and inestimable loss, and we suffer from an unnamed grief. As a people, we have disrupted the Holy ones of the weather, the water, the air, the animals, the plants, the Earth. We have neglected our dead. How can we continue to ask them for help unless that guidance is about healing the whole? Unless we feed them with our praises and gratitude? I suspect that when the Holy ones act in our lives, it is with a much larger vision than healing our personal psyches. I suspect that if the Holies heal us, they have
reciprocity in their Holy minds, that they need us to be full human beings in relation to them, to the Earth, to our original stories in order for the whole wild and amazingly beautiful thing to go on. So we have come to this place. And after seventeen years of
gatherings, teachings, ceremonies, and Councils on this land, Women’s Temple too is at a threshold. The future of Women’s Temple, and what form it will take is a question right now. But whatever work that I put my hand to, whether solitary or communal, my heart will hone to the path made by these questions. They will inform my prayers, councils, dreaming, healing, writing, and learning. I don’t know the answers but I have faith that the questions are vital and worthy to carry and that in the carrying lies the potential to
become someone who can live in alliance with all of life.
This is the matrix of the work that I see before us.
Copyright © 2012 by Nora L. Jamieson