I had the privilege of leading a birth retreat for young alumnae of a Catholic girls’ high school here in Cincinnati this past Saturday morning. The Embodying the Sacred mini-retreat seeks to connect the physical processes of pregnancy and birth with symbols of Christian faith to empower and celebrate women and is based on my book of the same name. Expressive activities like drawing and painting feature prominently as spiritual practices, and I hit upon the idea of providing blank journals for these activities, primarily as an organizational tool. Participants can then leave with a single item from the day that they can continue to express themselves in, rather than a jumble of loose papers.
In a lovely synchronicity, I eventually encountered a more theological rationale for using these journals, through the work of Jan Richardson, a Methodist minister/artist/writer. In the Sanctuary of Women refers to spiritual books as a “thin place” in the manner of the ancient Celts. Opening such a book, whether simple or extravagant, is to cross a threshold toward encounter with the divine in prayer. I am particularly captivated by Jan’s account of a discovery in Germany. A restoration team working on a former Cistercian monastery pulled up the floorboards of what had been their sanctuary to find a treasure trove of everyday items used by the community, including a collection of individual prayer books created by the sisters in the 1500s. While the books had elements in common, each was distinct and clearly intended for personal use apart from their communal prayer.
This framework resonated more strongly than ever at Saturday’s retreat as we gathered in the lower level of the historic school, a converted Victorian mansion, in a meeting space that for many years served as the school cafeteria. The architecture still echoes with the vibrancy of adolescent girls as well as the more subtle reverberation of the women religious who founded the convent and academy more than a century ago.
After introductions and opening prayer, I passed out the journals and provided collage materials for participants to decorate the cover. Using fingers to dab the glue, they arranged torn bits of paper into unique and heartfelt patterns on their individual books. When they finished, I invited them first to hold them up so we could all see. In the individual sharing that followed, a threshold was indeed crossed. The morning passed quickly as the group actively reflected on creation and our bodies, on a woman’s body as sacred vessel, on the female pelvis as passage for birth, especially the pain involved in that process, and on the power of storytelling about birth. Our circle itself came to embody the holiness of female community, past, present and future.
“Across the centuries, women have carried prayers in our bones and in our blood. We have passed down the sacred stories from body to body. We have struggled to know our lives as sacred texts, to perceive the ways that God has written God’s own story within us, to understand how the Word still seeks to take flesh in and through us.” (In the Sanctuary of Women, p. 14)