As I explore the excluded, and start with Mary Magdalene, clues of her intrinsic place within Christianity emerge. She represented Sophia, Wisdom, an ancient knowledge that Jesus was well aware of, as it is evident throughout his teachings as well as in the other manuscripts of the times. Magdalene was the balance of the spiritual force, Magdalene was one who understood the gnosis and could explain to the male disciples the meaning of Jesus’s teachings. In her time, it was as shocking as it has been for years that a mere woman could understand these things, and that she dared to talk about them was outrageous. Thus Mary was always set up for a head to head battle with Peter as they went out to spread the good news. Mary was the witness to the resurrection, Mary was present through his life, his death and his resurrection. She did not deny him. Like Wisdom;Sophia; she was his faithful consort. This is also why Solomon valued Wisdom:Sophia above all else. As the various small groups of early Christians went their ways with personal interpretations of what they had experienced, they attracted followers, wrote down their beliefs and these small groups battled against each other for supremacy of belief until eventually one victor emerged; and Christianity became solidified into a victor takes all situation…and as we all know…it is the victors who write history. Whilst I am largely writing from a Christian exploration, I will also write on Shekinah, the Divine Feminine with Judaism..whose wisdom is imparted with a kiss…transferring the ruah, the breath, the wisdom from one to another within the mystical tradition. This is a vitally important part of understanding Mary’s role, because within this understanding comes the knowing that Jesus was teaching for a new set of values and understandings in which men and women were to play equal roles with equal standing. Before the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we see Jesus imparting the Holy Spirit to Mary Magdalene with this kiss. On him/her the spirit of the Lord rests, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Is 11,2). The Spirit of the Lord takes hold of certain persons (patriarchs, matriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, wise men, women etc.,) and by bestowing on them special powers, enables them to act as guides and master interpreters in the world, of the will of God. “The Lord God fashioned man out of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and thus man became a living being (Gn 2, 7). The spirit of God is breathed onto the human being of dust and, because of this breath, the human being is transformed into a living being: no longer an animal being but a partner with whom and to whom God speaks and entrusts responsibility for the world. So I shall be exploring Shekinah, and ruah in much more depth in the posts to come.
Along with so many other women of the 60’s and 70’s in the United Kingdom I was brought up under the Christian umbrella in a Western culture that spoke of a Male God, His Male Son and the Holy Spirit (which was genderless for the most part) as the Trinity-the powerhead. Male priests took the service, gave communion, baptised the children, married couples, and buried the dead. Womens’ obvious presence was usually relegated to flower arranging and making tea at the village fete. All very nice, very comfortable. My mother stayed home and looked after the children, my father went out to work, all quite normal for those times. They are still married-well over 50 years, and when I married, like so many of my generation I expected it to be just like them, till death do us part. 14 years and 5 children later I was divorced. In all fairness I think my husband and I both wondered why ultimately, yes there were reasons, but neither of us had any concept that our marriage would be any different to our parents who both had years under their belts. So having obeyed the rules and lived in the patterns set for us, we both had to question our belief systems and ourselves. Divorcing threw all the rules out of the window. Times had changed-I no longer lived in the times of my parents, the world and its expectations hammered at the door of my socialization and demanded answers. I had to adapt and change, and in this I had to discover who I was again, and what my beliefs were. Like so many women of my generation, I had trustingly followed Mothers rules, and they had not worked. She was at as much of a loss as I was. We both had to reappraise life.
So now I stood alone, where were the women I could turn to for inspiration, guidance-those who had walked before me and might be able to show me a light in my darkness? Silence. I discovered the lack of women’s voices through the centuries, and wondered. Since biologically men and women are represented in almost equal measure in numbers, where were they in art, literature, architecture, science, history, and religion? Relegated to the flower arranging again. No help to me, and a tragedy of lost experience of half the world’s population. However all was not lost, I began to find research that was being conducted, and women who were asking the same questions. I knew within that the issue was hidden behind gender, but that it was not of gender, by which I mean that as human beings, we are asked to balance the male and female aspects within each of us in order to become complete. The problem has been that with the feminine not being represented even to women for about 7000 years, women themselves are lost as to what it is, and men are doubly lost!
The research that went into my book entitled “The Divine Feminine” took place over 12 years, [published 1999]. I had to find the power within the feminine and thus myself in that process. In the 13 years that have followed the writing of that book, female theologians have started to work in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, women archeologists are looking again at previous evidence and bringing new eyes and thought to what had previously been categorised by men. Layers are being peeled back to reveal a larger picture and the roles that women played in faith and community. Today’s generation who follow on from the pioneers in this work take much for granted-the right to work, the right to vote, the expectation that their partners will help with the house and the children, the right to hold a bank account and a mortgage. It is good that this is so, and let us not forget the women who made this possible.
Within Christian teaching I had three women presented to me as an example; the “perfect” Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus who followed God’s will and was blessed for all time because of it; who was given a special place in heaven and who the Catholics turned to for guidance, intercession and example of a life well led. On the other hand, there was Mary Magdalene, the reformed whore, the naughty girl of religion made good. The saint and the sinner. And of course our darling Eve, the very naughty one on whom all troubles of life can be blamed since it was her that tempted Adam to eat of the apple and everything seemingly went downhill from then on. Because of her, we were taught that we were cast out of paradise, made to suffer pain in childbirth and men would have to toil the earth to make a pitiful existence rather than walk around in a luscious garden where all was provided and we talked with God. Nothing much in between for a woman living in my times to identify with, since I neither saw myself as a saint, sinner nor as any kind of professional temptress. I was just a woman, changing nappies, trying to live a good life and make the most of it.
In the early part of the C 20th, Jung revolutionised Western thinking about the human person when he advanced the concept that a whole personality is composed of masculine and feminine characteristics. Ultimately his work is affecting our imagery about God as we search for the masculine and feminine in ourselves and our understanding of the whole. According to Jung, neither a man nor a woman is a complete person unless s/he absorbs some traits considered characteristics of the opposite sex. Even further, Jung asserted that the psyche or soul for the male is feminine and the psyche or soul for the female is masculine. Strange as this might sound, this idea was revolutionary to Western thinking as it suggests that not just women, but men are also ‘incomplete’ persons! In Western psychology, which followed the thinking of Aristotle through Aquinas to Freud, the female was viewed as a mini or castrated male, somehow inferior. Woman was described as the incomplete passive force and man as the active. The male has been considered the norm, the complete person.
It has therefore been a handicap for both male and female persons to move towards spiritual maturity and re-integration to full psycho-spiritual maturity, unless we can again identify with a feminine principle in God. The feminine principle has not been totally lost however. It exists in Sophia-Wisdom through Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and other major religious creeds, hidden like woman herself from the world stage for almost 7000 years. For the last 4000 years the symbol of the Trinity has been represented by a male deity, in Judaism, and for the past 2000 years in Christianity and Islam. It is through this trinity that many women have looked for direction in their spiritual lives, not knowing of any other way. Thanks to research however, another tradition has emerged-one that predates the patriarchal view of the spiritual journey by thousands of years (36,000 years). This ancient tradition is that of the Great Goddess, whose three aspects-maiden, mother, crone, represent the natural cycles of the Earth and all its creatures. By learning and knowing of this, we are able to balance the masculine and feminine within ourselves and thus advance to full maturity. It is not a case of one or the other, we must integrate both. Both/and again.
Because we have experienced only one side of the equation for so long the effect on the Western world has been devastating. The traditions of the West that have their roots in a patriarchal system have proven beyond any doubt that they are neither ecologically responsible nor responsive. They have at best tolerated and at worst espoused, political and social behaviours, which have violated our planet. The results are all around us, the polluted skies, earth and ocean attest to this gross lack of responsibility, along with the absence of an attitude of care necessary to heal our sick planet. By ignoring the Goddess within us and within our cosmos we have moved into a state of disequilibrium where our relationships to our planet and ourselves are in disarray. People who have been guided by the defensive and exclusive characteristics of a jealous patriarchal God have promoted the distinctions and differences amongst the people of the world. Such distinctions and differences can lead to disastrous results if not balanced with the promotion of sensitivity and understanding that leads to a celebration of differences, an appreciation of distinctions.
The Goddess image surrounded the planet for well over 35,000 years to about 5000 BCE, when her position descended like the goddess Persephone into the deep earth, the home of Hades. Around that time, we observe the ascendancy of the male gods-Zeus, Indra, Yahweh and Thor. In Greek mythology, after the goddess Persephone was returned from the kingdom of Hades did the earth restore her health. It was the winter of the earth’s history according to myth. We need to restore Persephone, to balance the guidance of the Great Father and the Great Mother Spirit. By doing this we can unite the masculine and the feminine within ourselves and thus give birth to the fruit of that union-The Christ child within. We cannot do it any other way. Male nor Female creates this child on their own. Thus while we persist in a system of male Trinity or female Trinity at the expense of the other, we remain infertile, impotent, unable to give birth to the Divinity within us which rests as a seed waiting to be fertilised.
When St Anslem wrote, `If they cannot hear my silence, how will they listen to my words? ` He is also referring to the rich tradition pre-dating Christianity and Judaism, that speaks of the balance between male and female, Love-Wisdom. This is expressed in the Cabbala as Chokma-Binah, known as Ying-Yang and other countless expressions of the same truth.
As a writer I know of the power of words and how naming something gives it power. But the real value in words lies in the silence that precedes them. It is in the rich darkness, the womb of silence that Sophia-Wisdom works and creates, giving birth to Logos (Creation Manifested). Silence is pregnant sound. In silence is Wisdom at work. When she gives birth, the word is formed and the birth is manifest. It is Sophia-Wisdom that speaks to us when we meditate, it is Sophia-Wisdom that we call the Holy Spirit, it is Sophia-Wisdom that comforts and guides us, teaches us, shows us the whole, inspires us and she deserves recognition.
“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Before its birth, the Word existed in silence. Male creation, “the moving across the face of the waters”, is birthed from Female silence, Wisdom. Thus Wisdom remains the hidden face of the Godhead until one can understand and hear the silence.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone…”
The 7 pillars of Wisdom’s Temple make their appearance in another guise within Christian mystical tradition, becoming the seven swords that pierce the Virgin in her aspect of mother of Sorrows.
A final word:
“Woman is a beam of the Divine Light
She is not a being whom sensual desire takes as an object.
She is Creator, it should be said,
She is not a Creature”
Mathnawi Book 1. Jalaluddin Rumi
An interesting point about the Hebrew God Yahweh is that it is the first appearance of a God (or Goddess) that has no consort. Prior to this there was always a consort that balanced the aspects of male or female. Here we need to delve further back into history to see what happened and how society functioned before the arrival of this lone God onto the scene. Where did he come from? In addition, what happened to Sophia?
What Wisdom is, and how she came into being, I will relate;
I will conceal no mysteries from you,
But will rack her from the beginnings
And bring the knowledge of her into the open.
Wisdom of Solomon 8:22
Sophia has never disappeared, but she has been sleeping rough in all the major religious traditions for a long time. So what is Sophia and why is she called Goddess? In the West we balk at the mere word goddess, so thorough has been our re-training by the Christian Church whose `God’ is male. God is like colourless light, which can be endlessly refracted through different prisms to create different colours. As the poet William Blake said;” All deities reside in the human heart”. The images and metaphors we use to describe God often reflect the kind of society and culture within which we have grown up. We have had 2000 years of male images, and 7000 years of few female images. This says more about our society than it does about our God. Sophia is both silent and veiled unlike her partner the Logos. The silence of Wisdom precedes the speech of the Logos. It is for this reason that the deacon at the Eastern Orthodox liturgy cries out,” Wisdom, let us attend!”
When we enter theological and philosophical ground we discover hair-splitting over Sophia’s true identity; she becomes a substance, energy, an abstraction, or she is an identifiable part of the Trinity. Theologians and philosophers have gone out of their way to explain her away, or grudgingly incorporate her into the Divine economy. The way in which Sophia has been treated is well paralleled in the manner with which women have been accorded respect or not. The Black Goddess lies at the base of spiritual knowledge, which is why her image appears in with many traditions. One of the prophecies of Sophia is, “I will give thee the treasures out of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places”. These are the treasures within, which we access when we go deep within, the state known as meditation or contemplation. John of the Cross and other mystics describe Sophia in their descriptions of the Dark Night of the Soul. Within the darkness of night or the cloud of unknowing, we discover the heart of our spirituality. This is the seed experience of spiritual growth, to be held fast in the dark earth, to suffer the coldness of winter that germination may take place. Henry Vaughn, a mystical poet describes it thus,
“There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness”
Sophia is found in the churches too! The creation of the world is often expressed in primal cosmogony by means of a birthing Goddess who is shown in the position of birth, her vulva spread, and her legs akimbo. Through the sacred gateway of her vulva all life proceeds and is incarnate. This image is known as the Sheila na Gig, the form ex origo, whose image was placed over church doorways, a continual reminder that we are born of the earth and her womb will also become our tomb. It is not until the classical Hellenic Age that we find distaste for the reproductive organs or see birth as `unclean’. Since those times the Father, Son and Spirit have replaced the birthing Goddess. Physical creation, woman and Goddess have been polarised to the preferred metaphors of mental creativity, the Divine Masculine and Man.
Words of warning here! The understanding of the Mother, Sophia gives due regard to the harmony of Nature itself, and our responsibility towards it in nurturing and guardianship of it. We realise that all is immanence, that all is connected and precious because of Life itself given by the Mother. Consider the relationship between some cultures and their land. By forgetting the Feminine Principle and its life-giving force we have also forgotten its opposite face that of destroyer-we now live in the days of Shiva, destroyer according to Hindu scriptures. Science under a patriarchal system, is looking beyond the Earth for answers, seeing our planet as expendable and already planning to implement the Western pattern of `progress’ and expansion into another solar system. We cannot even nurture the one we inhabit properly!
The Father-Mother God is not a person or figure, but is rather a principle representing the unmanifest and the manifested. The Father represents that which is unmanifest and the Mother represents that which is manifested. Combined they represent the total God. In order for anything to exist in a manifested form, it must first exist on the manifested plane; so it is with regeneration and rejuvenation. Regeneration is the Father principle, the unmanifested; and it supplies the energy to generate that which is necessary for rejuvenation.
Change is necessary. For many years we have suffered from `estrangement’. One of the policies of this estrangement has become the fundamental teaching of many spiritual traditions and belief systems. It is the dichotomy of `spiritual’ versus `worldly’. In it, the `inner’ and the `outer’, `humankind’ and `nature’, are polarised and attributed specific values. The `spiritual’ life is deemed to be worth striving for, whilst the worldly life is decreed to be `inferior’, to be transcended. Humankind is considered to be of supreme value and primary significance whilst nature is only valued for its capacity to serve us. The `inner’ is considered sacred and the `outer’ of doubtful value.
The history of spirituality has actively participated in the prejudice against and rejection of the body. In certain established religious traditions women are made invisible, swathed in voluminous uniforms to protect both themselves and others from temptation and desire. Our own confused relationship with our bodies is reinforced through the reminder that it was through bodies-our sexuality, that there was banishment from paradise. There are theologians aplenty to remind us: `You are the door of Satan, you are the ones that yielded to the temptation of the tree; you are the first deserter of the Law of God; you persuaded man whom Satan himself did not have the power to subdue; with irresponsibility you led man, the image of God astray!’
We learn that our bodies, tickets to social prestige and acceptability, are not our tickets to salvation but it’s opposite. Our own history of despising our bodies is matched by the contempt in which traditional spirituality holds the body. In the Buddhist tradition reflection is encouraged on the inherent impurity and `loathsomeness’ of the body. Detachment from our bodies is to be encouraged lest we fall prey to the snares of our sexuality. The degeneration of this detachment is underlined by the story of a mother who travelled halfway round the world to visit her son, living as a monk in Thailand, whom she had not seen for several years. She was not allowed to embrace him or express her joy at seeing him because it offended the vows that he had taken. Vows meant to constrain passion equally constrained all physical expressions of love.
Our bodies are despised because they are the vessels of our sexuality. Our sexuality is perceived as a power we need to subdue lest it overwhelm our rationality and reason. Our bodies become the scapegoat of our fear of our sexuality and in our fear, we attempt to control them, dismiss and suppress them. In our pursuit of a disembodied spirituality our bodies become regarded as sources of attachment and temptation and our spiritual success is measured by our capacity to renounce, overcome and transcend them. The destructiveness of this distorted relationship with the body is apparent and is perpetuated in estranged spirituality.
In estranged spirituality the obstacle of the body is renamed and misnamed the obstacle of `women’. Carrying the blame for original sin, woman is to be punished eternally by being banished from any authentic form of acknowledgement by, or participation in, established religion. Women are punished for their `weakness’ by exploitation and oppression. The symbol of the `temptress’ Eve permeates our culture, a living symbol repeated in the media, in literature and in religious teachings.
The Buddha offered new possibilities of liberation to women in teaching a spiritual vision that offered freedom to all beings. Yet despite the original teachings, the taints of estranged spirituality crept in to distort Buddhism. On relationships between Buddhist monks and women:
`How are we to conduct ourselves Lord, with regard to womankind’?
`As if not seeing them Ananda’.
`But if we should see them, what are we to do’?
`Do not talk, Ananda’.
`But if they should speak to us Lord, what shall we do’?
`Keep awake Ananda’.
Women become the scapegoats for the inability to relate to the body and to sexuality with respect and sensitivity. internalizing the messages received through social and spiritual values, women learn to belittle their spiritual potential. They adopt a mode of passivity, accepting the spiritual banishment decreed to them, regarding themselves as inferior and unworthy spiritual beings, exiled from an authentic spiritual fulfilment. Is it any surprise that in Eastern Buddhist countries it is a commonly held belief that a woman must wait to be reborn as a man before she can attain enlightenment? The estrangement from our bodies becomes the basis for rejecting life. It separates us from nature and the communion and bonding with others that our hearts yearn for. We learn to feel guilty about our need for connection and mistake it as spiritual `weakness’. The yearning to bear and nurture our children, to care for our planet and to creatively establish our relationship with it is regarded as `worldly’ attachments. The inner brutality that extends from suppressing this `weakness’ within us, male or female is then projected outwards in rejection and denial of our world. This is where we are now.
The feminine energy now re-emerging seeks to re-establish wholeness, as opposed to the fractured estrangement we have now. A fundamental step in establishing in nurturing a spirituality of connectedness is establishing a rapport and reconciliation between the variety of inner dynamics that make us a whole and unique individual. In the belief of estrangement, we divorce ourselves from nature. We divorce the spirit from our bodies and this process of inner fragmentation is supported by our distorted value system. The process of fragmentation has its own momentum and continues. We create yet further divisions between our mind and our emotions, our intellect and our capacity to feel. Our minds are seen to be the receptacles of wisdom, the owners of understanding-reasonable, strong and reliable. Emotion is deemed irrational, weak and untrustworthy. Emotion is attributed to the heart, reason to the mind, the heart defined as feminine, and the mind as masculine, the feminine weak and the masculine strong. We are encouraged in our society to cultivate the power of our minds. The achievement of our goals that society deems worthy, rely on the capacity to be worthy, rely on our capacity to evaluate, to be rational and strong in our intellect. The effects on an individual and global level born of this negation and dismissal of emotion are apparent. Suppression, oppression, aggression, alienation, and exploitation, psychosomatic illness, and psychological imbalance are rampant in our world. We wreak havoc and destruction upon ourselves and our world through the estrangement we believe in, the estrangement of the feminine.
Spiritual fulfilment relies not upon the rejection or denial of anything, but upon the discarding of prejudices and destructive belief systems. We must question all prejudices and have the courage to discard them.
In the sister post to this,published next, “The Killing Times”, which I wrote back in 1999, I show how this estrangement of the feminine within faith leads to horrific slaughter as well as environmental destruction written about above. It attempts to show how these estrangements exploded in one minor period in societies across Europe. Entitled `The Killing Times’, taken from “The Collected Articles” another book of mine, it explores how the `weakness’ of women was exploited to death by a patriarchal church and a patriarchal society.
The image below is an Orthodox icon dedicated to Holy Sophia, Wisdom.