Monday 28 August 2017

A Desire to be Speechless

I have spent a lot of this week wondering. Wondering about disagreements, division, disputes and the unspeakable nature of being in union with the Divine. This all began last weekend at a church meeting concerning a controversial and important local decision. I must say, I found the meeting very difficult. I don't think I am worried about the presence of conflict, but this gathering disturbed me greatly. It wasn't the decision that needed to be made, but the implications on relationships that brought me concern. A lot of words were said that day; arguments for and against, some mentioned calmly, some with passion, and others with anger. We came away with a result, but also a lot of people who felt hurt or unheard. I am not mentioning this to bring any blame or to cast any judgment, but simply to say that at times disagreements are very difficult and painful.

Also this week, the Marriage Equality debate has fired up in Australia. This too, at times, has turned ugly. When people feel strongly one way or another, it can certainly bring out the worst in people. I am very passionate about this public issue and have been reflecting this week on the best way to voice my view without causing harm to those who may disagree. I have also been hoping and praying that those who think differently to me may find respectful and non-violent ways to express themselves. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in many instances. People on both sides of the fence have used damaging actions and words in an attempt to make their point. Is there a way to hold respectful dialogue and debate when people are so passionate?

In the middle of this week, I was fortunate to spend some time at the Residential Retreat for the Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction. I assisted with some supervision sessions and led a workshop on the second day. I was able to sit in on a session exploring Teresa of Avila. While delving into her Interior Castle with its different rooms, I was struck again by the unspeakable experience of God that takes place in those inner rooms. What a blessing, in a week full of words, to sit in the presence of the Divine for which there really are no words at all.

It had me wondering about the importance we put upon words. We always seem to have something to say, particularly around issues for which we are passionate. Silence can be viewed as apathy or ignorance. I wonder if there is value in stopping the talk and being still together? One church community have come out publicly in support of LGBTIQ people and marriage equality; The Quakers. Is it just an accident that this faith community are known for using far less words than other church communities?  

Our society seems so uncomfortable with wordless moments. Silences are filled. They are labelled as awkward or wasteful. But what of the easy silence between old friends? What of the reverent silence of a crowd when they know they are witnessing a significant moment? What of the stillness of the night that gives all creation rest? Perhaps we need to be deliberate about creating wordless moments and places of stillness, for it certainly doesn't come naturally for many. In my wondering this week, I have a feeling that in these silent spaces is where the healing begins. For me, it has been the place where my soul is refreshed and somehow I find the right words to say when it is time to speak. In my longing to be closer to the Divine, I desire to become speechless.

Friday 18 August 2017

Meeting Mechthilde, Marguerite and Hadewijch

My reading over the last month or so has taken me in many directions. It is like a magical, mystery tour! Early this week, I found myself back in the Middle Ages meeting a group of women that would come to be known as the Beguines. I had heard of these women and had a vague idea of who they were, but now they have come alive for me in a different way.

At the beginning of the 12th Century, women had the choice of getting married and raising a family or becoming a nun and entering a cloister. Both choices involved living under male authority. Some women, however, chose to live alone and devote themselves to prayer and good works, but did not want to take the vows involved in entering a cloister. These women began to dwell together or side by side and communities developed. To choose this way of life was a statement to others that they did not need to live under male headship. To make this counter-cultural choice, in the first place, showed signs of great resilience and strength.


Delving deeper, I set about reading individual stories. The first woman I met was Mechthilde of Magdeburg. She was born into a noble family, but left home to join a Beguine community in Magdeburg. Mechthilde had many visions during her life and she wrote about these in a series of books titled "The Flowing Light of the Godhead" and written in Middle Low German. Throughout her life she was highly critical of church dignitaries, religious laxity and claims to theological insight and gained much opposition. Some even called for the burning of her writings. In her older years, and in poor health, she entered a Cistercian community who protected her and assisted in the writing of her last writings.

The next woman I met was Hadewijch of Antwerp. Not so much is known about Hadewijch. We assume this is her name as it was scribbled in the margin of one of her poems. She wrote her visions, letters and poetry in Middle Dutch and is well known as a 13th Century mystic poet. From her letters we know that she held a leadership position in her Beguine community. It can also be established that she led a wandering life due to opposition. Hadewijch's writings were full of passion and love in her relationship with the Divine.

I then discovered Marguerite Porete. Margeurite was a French speaking beguine who wrote about the workings of divine love. Her book was titled "The Mirror of Simple Souls" in which she spoke of how the simple soul was connected to God and had no will but God's. Margeirite was arrested for heresy and ordered to take her book out of circulation. She refused and was burnt at the stake in Paris after a lengthy trial in 1310.

These women, and many others like them, were amazing. They lived in a time where women were in many ways far more vulnerable than they are today. They chose to forge their own path in life, going against cultural norms and expectations. They were outspoken, gutsy and bold in their statements. They wrote about their personal experiences of God and didn't feel they needed to answer to any religious authorities. They wrote in the language of the people, making their works accessible to more people. They faced opposition with courage and integrity. All of this, and they were the inspiration for many greats who followed, such as Meister Eckhart. These hidden women have so much to teach us about living life being true to yourself. I'm going to keep digging and find more gems from these bold women of the Middle Ages.

Friday 11 August 2017

Constantly Under Scrutiny

As part of my ministry training, it was compulsory to engage in Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a course that is challenging in many ways, but perhaps the most daunting part for the participants is the intensity of self analysis. Yes, CPE is about learning particular pastoral skills, but moreso it is about learning who you are and developing a deepened self awareness. It can be quite confronting. It is like gazing at yourself intently in the mirror for (in my case) six months. I have spoken with a lot of people who found the experience terrifying and even others who found it too probing. My experience was extremely positive. I did learn a lot about myself. Past memories and ways of being were dug up and pulled to pieces. It was hard work, but well worth it for my own development and growth.

I always admire people who are willing to enter into times of self growth. It leaves you vulnerable, exposed and raw. My experiences of these times of growth have mostly been by choice. I have chosen to enrol for a program or to go on a retreat that I know will stretch me and bring me to a place of being more true to myself. They have also been lived out in loving and supportive environments where those leading and those participating beside want only the best for you. I also have the luxury of choosing when these times of growth occur and for how long they last.

In the last few days certain friends and family have been on my mind. These people are some of the most self aware I know. They have not simply enrolled in courses at a convenient time, but have lived their lives under the scrutiny of the world around them. As they wrestle with the questions of being true to themselves they have been extremely vulnerable. I am talking about my LGBTIQ friends. Those people who have chosen the difficult path of being true to themselves, rather than living an easier life of falsehood. Some of them have been forced to make difficult choices in friendships, their faith communities and even with family members.

The cost of being true to yourself and entering that journey of self discovery doesn't take place in a confined time and place. It is ongoing. Every time a new community is entered or a new person is met, risks surround them. Sometimes this is a safe environment, but as the stories show, many times it is not. There is no reprieve from the exhausting task of being true to yourself.

I really have no idea what it is like to live with the constant judgment and anxiety about the harassment that could be around the corner. But somehow, I feel protective of my LGBTIQ friends at this time. They are some of the most awesome people I know and wonderful role models to my children. I feel for them in the days ahead as decisions are made that say it is okay for their humanity and relationships to be brought into question by people who don't even know them. I feel helpless, and can only say that I love them and I will be here for them.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Perfection vs Wholeness

If someone had told me as a teenager that one day I would present a paper at a Feminist Theology Symposium, I probably would have laughed at them. In fact, not just laughed, but a hearty, uncontrollable, belly laugh. You see, as a teen, I was not too impressed with being an emerging woman, let alone celebrating the fact or finding solidarity with other women. I was a "tomboy". I kicked the footy with the boys during lunch time and eventually went on to become an avid observer of Dungeons and Dragons. I was not interested in makeup or the latest fashion or even the to-die-for heart throb. While most girls my age had Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp on their bedroom walls - the closest I got was Tom Burlinson because he was rugged and could ride a horse like no one else in the Snowy River.

It wasn't just that I was not "girly", I actually resented being a woman. While other girls seemed to flaunt their developing bodies, I could see nothing to celebrate about reaching puberty. It all seemed more of a burden than anything. I don't remember if I said it out loud often, or whether I just told myself - "I wish I was a boy."

In my early adulthood, I resigned myself to the way things were and got on with life. I had never really experienced discrimination because of my gender and had pursued all my dreams without question. Looking back, I can only remember one Maths teacher who saw the girls in the class as a distraction to the boys, rather than a student in their own right.

Some years ago now, I was encouraged to attend a conference for women in the church. The weekend included guest speakers, workshops and creative opportunities. Although I enjoyed the input, I found myself confused by the feisty nature of some of these women. I couldn't understand what the battle was about that needed to be fought.

Today, I understand a little better. For me, it is not about equal pay or the right to an education, although I realise this is still an issue for many women in the world. For me, it is far more subtle. It is about the way that decisions are made. It is about who holds the power in a room. It is about who gets to speak and how. It is about how we deal with important issues in communities and how we look to the future. I am beginning to realise that there are more masculine ways and more feminine ways and everything in between. Too often, we fall to the default, more masculine ways of being. These are the sort of topics that I am interested in challenging and finding new ways.

So, I am going along and presenting a paper titled "An Inner Conflict: Towards Perfection or Wholeness". I am out of my comfort zone. I feel far from perfect. I don't feel like I have all the answers or perhaps even the right questions. I am nervous and running a tape of "You can do it" in my head. But, somehow, I know it will be okay. If anything, this audience should understand. I already have the feeling that the people attending will be encouraging, empowering and inspiring. Although it may have seemed like the last place I would find myself, it certainly feels like the perfect place to be vulnerable and take the risk.