This post is written for a synchroblog on faith and feminism underway through July 25. Originally I hoped to link a previous piece to the synchroblog site and be done with it,
but . . . I discovered that feminism is not a topic I’ve addressed explicitly in nearly four years of blogging, hardly surprising I suppose since “feminism” is maligned by much of the Catholic Church. Yet I have always considered myself a feminist, and for me that means asking questions.
Why are things the way they are?
When I was in 5th grade at a Catholic parochial school in 1973, I was one of a group of girls who wrote a letter to then-Archbishop Bernardin asking why we couldn’t be altar servers. We had raised this question to our teacher, and to her credit she suggested and assisted with the letter. To the archbishop’s credit, he at least wrote back, explaining that it was largely a matter of tradition. Although the content of his answer was unsatisfying, I still remember the kindness of its tone, which now seems rather quaint in contrast to my 2014 experience writing to our present archbishop, which received no response of any kind.
The “big bang” question of my life arose in my early 30s, after I had given birth to our older two children, when my husband and I visited a hospice for the first time. We had been blessed to receive skilled, nurturing care from midwives during pregnancy and birth, which impacted us so positively. Following the hospice visit I remarked to Joe that it
reminded me of the midwives because the care was so personalized, the dying process was
treated as a normal part of life, and support was provided to the whole family. Suddenly I began to wonder why death and dying receive so much focus in the Christian tradition but normal childbirth none at all. Of course the reason is obvious — women’s bodies are not valued in traditional theology; in fact, Christianity often treats them as sources of shame or sin. But the questions would not go away! Giving birth was the most amazing and powerful experience I’d ever had. My body writhed, sweated, moaned, and bled through such intense pain to bring forth a child. How could this process be anything but holy and awe-inspiring??
How does birth connect with faith?
My response to these questions gestated for many years but finally took the form of a book for pregnant women called Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth. Avoiding any romanticizing of birth and with the premise that the bodily process of birth is spiritual, the book draws on Christian symbols and practices and suggests activities to make the body/spirit connection real in an empowering way, for example by working with clay to reflect on the pelvis as a sacred vessel or decorating a birth garment to honor birthing as priestly work.
The holiness of birth can be a tough sell with many feminists though, even in faith settings. At first pass, it’s dismissed as a feminist concern because our culture sees birth only through a medical lens, and so often women have been oppressed by childbearing. Our churches too have used birthing to relegate women to a separate sphere. So the tendency is to segment childbirth as a health care issue just for younger women or to regard it only as something to be managed or avoided on the way to real liberation and equality. Often I must persuade people that this topic is worthwhile. However, once they read my book or attend a program, they get it. The physical/spiritual connection resonates, and they want to go deeper.
I call my initial wondering about childbirth and theology a “big bang” question because nearly two decades later it still reverberates. Like the universe, it’s expanded outward.
Now I’m asking:
How do women image God through birth?
How does our culture’s disregard for birth intersect with rampant violence against women (rape culture, trafficking, pornography, etc)?
How does birth serve as a metaphor for creative endeavors, spiritual growth, or work for justice?
What might I learn from the LGBTQ community and/or women of color that will challenge or enrich my thinking on these matters?
Feminism means asking questions and never giving up on the search for answers.