Listen to this poem by Pem Kremer, called “Epiphany”:
Lynn Schmidt says
she once saw you as prairie grass,
Nebraska prairie grass;
she climbed out of her car on a hot highway,
leaned her butt on the nose of her car,
looked out over one great flowing field,
stretching beyond her sight until the horizon came
vastness, she says,
responsive to the slightest shift of wind,
full of infinite change,
She says when she can’t pray
She calls up Prairie Grass.
That’s the poem, about a woman named Lynn Schmidt who describes her experience of the Sacred. A vastness of prairie grass, responsive to the slightest shift of wind, full of infinite change. This is the image she conjures up in her mind, when a need for prayer rises up in her but she can’t easily give voice to it. Not an image of some powerful, transcendent male monarch battling and triumphing against enemies; not an image of a majestic, distant, forbidding grandfather who exists outside and beyond the earth that He has manufactured. Not any of these, but rather: a memory of prairie grass, evoking wonder and awe in her heart. A memory, but also a seed for nothing less than a new mythology, a new way of imagining the Sacred.
Today our topic is the Goddess: what this symbol means and can mean for women and men today.
Definitely this: consciousness-raising. Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow (with whom I personally studied in seminary) tells a story about a gathering of mainly Christian women in 1972, in Loveland, Ohio, to explore theology together. “In one of the small working groups that was a daily part of the conference, the women realized that traditional names for God no longer adequately reflected their experience. They began to call out words that meant God to them, putting their designations on a large newsprint board. One of the fascinating aspects of the resulting list,” says Plaskow, “was its large number of ‘ing’ words—changing, creating, enabling, nurturing, pushing, calling into question, suffering, touching, breaking through. The God of their experience was not an immutable being ‘out there,’ but a process of which they were part.”
“Brushing out my daughter’s dark silken hair,” writes poet Sharon Olds,
before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a small
pale flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her purse full of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.
That’s the poem. Mother and daughter—the changes of life—the story of replacement. And it is a sacred story, told with the “ing” words of the women from Loveland Ohio in 1972: changing, creating, enabling, nurturing, pushing, calling into question, suffering, touching, breaking through. This is what the Goddess is. The Goddess moves within the cycles of life and death and rebirth, in the natural world as well as in our relationships, in community. The Goddess is a symbol of that, a way of giving honor to that.
But does the Goddess actually exist? Is the Goddess a being in Her own right, or simply a poetic symbol of the inherent worth and dignity of nature and people, as well as of the flow of interdependencies in which we live and move and have our being?
Here’s how Starhawk answers this question. Starhawk is a feminist writer and activist, a major figure in today’s neopagan movement, as well as an influential voice in the 1995 decision by our Unitarian Universalist Association to formally include earth-centered traditions as one of the six sources of our faith. She says, “It all depends on how I feel. When I feel weak, [the Goddess] is someone who can help and protect me. When I feel strong, she is my symbol of my own power. At other times I feel her as the natural energy in my body and the world.” That’s what Starhawk says, and right here we have another opportunity for consciousness-raising, relating to our understanding of what good theology looks like. Must good theology insist on single answers, or can it be large and contain multitudes? “Is there,” asks Carol Christ, another leading voice in the Goddess spirituality movement, “a way of doing theology that would not lead immediately into dogmatic controversy, would not require theologians to say definitively that one understanding is true and the others are false? Could people’s relation to a common symbol be made primary and varying interpretations be acknowledged?” And then she says: “The diversity of explications of the meaning of the Goddess symbol suggest that symbols have a richer significance than any explications of their meaning can express….”
For me, one particular use of the Goddess symbol is especially profound, and like Starhawk, I go back and forth with it, sometimes seeing it as factually true, other times regarding it as sheer beautiful poetry, but all times moved and inspired to wonder. It’s this: the image of the earth as the body of the Goddess—the one source out of which everything emerged, guaranteeing the interrelatedness and kinship of all things. All beings as children of the same womb, cherished by Her.
“How the days went,” writes poet Audre Lorde (and imagine her voice as the Goddess, speaking to the world that is her body):
How the days went
while you were blooming within me
I remember each upon each—
the swelling changed planes of my body
and how you first fluttered, then jumped
and I thought it was my heart
How the days wound down
and the turning of winter
I recall, with you growing heavy
against the wind. I thought
now her hands
are formed, and her hair
has started to curl
now her teeth are done
now she sneezes.
Then the seed opened
I bore you one morning just before spring
My head rang like a fiery piston
my legs were towers between which
A new world was passing.
I can only distinguish
one thread within running hours
You, flowing through selves
Just listen to that. How different our world would be if this had been the prevailing image of the Sacred in the West—not patriarchal male God, who manufactures the creation as something outside of him, as a watchmaker would skillfully make a watch, but the Goddess, for whom creation is birthed out of her very substance and essence, in pain and in joy? Then, a vision of earth that is common today would simply be unthinkable: that the earth is but a temporary, discardable stage upon which the drama of individual salvation is played out—valuable only insofar it functions as a stage, a holding place, a location. OK to pollute, OK to poison, OK to use as humans see fit. How could this even be thinkable, if the earth were seen instead as the body of the Goddess, in fact or simply in poetic imagination?
Poetry is powerful, whatever the facts may turn out to be. Symbols are powerful. Carol Christ emphasizes this when she says that “Even people who no longer ‘believe in God’ or participate in the institutional structure of patriarchal religion still may not be free of the power of the symbolism of God the [domineering, jealous] Father. A symbol’s effect does not depend on rational assent, for a symbol also functions on levels of the psyche other than the rational. […] [The] mind abhors a vacuum. Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced. Where there is no replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement, or defeat.”
I remember a college philosophy class from years ago, when I triggered a mini-crisis in my students. We had been talking about traditional Western God images and how they have a stubbornly masculine, angry-jealous-God-of-the-Old-Testament dimension. My class of course denied this. Not just men in the room but women too, saying, “Everyone knows that God is beyond gender.” Then I talked about a classic argument for why the Catholic Church rejects women as candidates for the priesthood: Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God was male, maleness is thus tied up with God, therefore only men can be priests. I talked about this—how it was only the tip of the iceberg of instances where women have experienced oppression because they are not made in the masculine image of God. Women locked in stereotypes of passivity, completely contrary to the strength seen in the Goddesses of old: Athena, Artemis, Isis, Brigid. Women absorbing the prejudice that there is something fundamentally wrong and shameful about female bodily functions, like menstruation. Childbirth treated like a disease requiring hospitalization. The fanatic pursuit of youthfulness—postmenopausal women knocked off the pedestal they were placed on when younger—their distinctive beauty not celebrated as it should be. All these instances of misogynism, and more.
Then I gave them the challenge. Thanksgiving was coming up, so I said, When you go home to see your family, ask to say the Thanksgiving blessing over the meal, and just see what happens when you pray like this: “Mother God, who gave birth to our universe and to the abundance that is before us, we thank you….. “ I could just see the wheels turning in their minds, eyes widening when they imagined the consequences. Symbols go deep. Rationally, of course God can’t be male. But the poetry of this persists. Poetry is powerful, deeper than reason, comes first—it is, in fact, the material which reason, second of all, sifts and sorts and makes sense of…. But the poetry, the imagination comes first.
It’s exactly as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Consciousness needs to be raised. Reminds me of an incident that happened a couple weeks back. One morning, just as I was starting my car and about to leave my home in Decatur to come here, I resolved to take a slightly different path than was my usual habit. I wanted to avoid the noxious traffic on South Candler Street right beside Agnes Scott College, and to do that, early on in my trip I needed to turn right on Kirk Road rather then left. Just this—so simple. Turn right on Kirk, then left on Avery, Avery would take me all the way down to East College, which in turn would take me to Commerce, and on and on. Less traffic this way.
Great. I shifted the car into drive, started off, and my thoughts immediately turned away from my plan to take a different path to work and raced way ahead to the work itself: meetings and conversations and issues and things to do. Details details details. I was already on South Candler Street, slowing down to a stop behind a long line of cars, before I realized what the heck had happened. I had switched to auto-pilot, and auto-pilot doesn’t follow new orders that disagree with deep programming. How could I have lost focus so easily?
For me, the image of the Goddess is powerful because solidifies my intent and my decision to take a different route through my world than usual. It reminds me to expand my sense of the sacred beyond the patriarchal male images that are an inescapable part of our cultural programming, because I don’t want to get stuck in that kind of traffic. Gives a man a heart attack. Alienates a man from love. I mean this sincerely. It happens when men attempt to model their lives after the patriarchal God, which they do. I want to take a different route, turn right when my programming says turn left, and for this, I need to stay focused, I need to stop the chatter of the status quo from taking center stage, I need a God-image that helps me imagine the sacred to be BIGGER than that. BIG, because what I am worshipping I am becoming, and I want to be BIG in my heart. That’s what I want, and I suspect you want it too, men and women alike.
I’ll close as I began—with a poem about prayer. This one comes from Joy Harjo, entitled “Eagle Poem”:
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circles in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done