“Virginity is not about sex,” the nun told me, her blue eyes afire with passion. “The church has made virginity about celibacy and piety – but what Mary represents is much greater than this. Virginity is about purity of heart, love for God, and complete faithfulness.”
These words, roughly reproduced according to my vivid memory of a warm morning in El Salvador, come from a woman who taught me the power of the feminine face of God. Her name is Sister Peggy, and she has lived in solidarity with the Salvadoran people for the past twenty five years. Following her experiences of accompanying people from the town of Suchitoto through the civil war, she founded the Center for Arts and Peace, now a thriving center of dance, visual arts, music, and theater. Sister Peggy gave birth to a movement with her sisters that required difficult choices, but now thrives as a center of revitalization and peace education. She has experienced God’s presence through sharing hunger, joy, and questions with her Salvadoran brothers and sisters.
“I find God on my lips when I am most human.” – Sister Peggy
As I sat in Quaker meeting this morning, my thoughts drifted back to meeting Sister Peggy almost exactly nine months ago. I thought about her faith in the Virgin Mary guiding her through her spiritual journey. The message of Advent, and the coming of the angel Gabriel to Mary, has stirred up new questions about the feminine face of God. What did I encounter in El Salvador when I met women leaders of the faith? What does it mean to pray to the Virgin Mary? Who is God, as both masculine and feminine, and beyond gender?
My friend Jessica and I during our visit to the Centro Arte Para La Paz (Center for Arts and Peace)
Recently, I have been reading a new favorite novel, By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho. The book was loaned to me recently by a dear friend, Kaela. I contemplated waiting over break to read it given the amount of work I have before me. But coincidentally, she gave it to me on the day that the plot of the book began, December 4, so I decided to begin reading then. The plot has captivated me as a love story, centered upon one man and woman’s encounter with the Virgin Mary. While Christian theology does not traditionally regard the Virgin Mary as Divine, Coelho’s text portrays Her as a manifestation of the Goddess, Great Mother, the Divine Feminine, who shows the characters the way to love and be loved. Below is one of my favorite quotes:
“‘You have to take risks,’ he said. ‘We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Every day, God gives us the sun–and also one moment in which we have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Every day, we try to pretend that we haven’t perceived that moment, that it doesn’t exist–that today is the same as yesterday and will be the same as tomorrow. But if people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover that magic moment. It may arrive in the instant when we are doing something mundane, like putting our front-door key in the lock; it may lie hidden in the quiet that follows the lunch hour or in the thousand and one things that all seem the same to us. But that moment exists–a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles.”
― Paulo Coelho
On the day that I met Sister Peggy, I realized that I had a lot to learn about love and about God. I needed to learn that, in the words of Coelho, “In love there are no rules,” only experiences of surrender, and the resulting ecstasy and loss. I needed to learn to take risks and to respect my own limitations. But above all, I needed to learn how to listen to my heart guide me from within.
Without knowing how to hear the voice of the Goddess, I have subjected my body to years of discipline, and rules, divorcing my head from my body. I have prayed in a way that divorced the transcendent Holy Father from the Holy Mother in our midst. I have become disenchanted with life, and I have let myself be led by prescribed gender roles. I have forgotten that, as a woman, I am manifested in and through the Divine Womb that continues to birth new miracles of existence – each moment of every day.
Though I find it difficult to listen to hear Her voice over the blaring voice of our patriarchal culture, the Divine Mother lives within each of us. She speaks words of wisdom and compassion, and she nurtures us through difficulties. She does not judge those who follow Her, yet she gives them courage to be authentic. She opens us to our vulnerability as She shows us the path to love ourselves, God, and others.
This season of Advent, I feel that a creative energy is moving within me as I learn to listen to Mary’s voice. She said YES to God and performed the greatest miracle on Earth, as she gave birth to what all science has deemed impossible. She said YES despite the brutality of death she risked, the social marginalization, and the loss she would experience at Jesus’ crucifixion. She said YES to the angel, though she was terrified, vulnerable, and afraid. When the angel came to her, she spoke with courage and praise.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said. “May it be to me as you have said.” – Luke 1:38
In the past few weeks of studying feminist liberation theology, I have read various interpretations of the Virgin Mary. Some have deemed her as holy because she transcended the “carnal realm” of the female. Others have labeled her as holy because she passively let God do what God willed with her. What feminists have realized, however, is that Mary’s power lives in her active receptivity to God. She is not the figure that marianismo, a doctrine of sexual purity and feminine passivity, paints her to be, She is not servile, nor docile, but a courageous servant. Her connection to her female body allowed God to enter the world. She performed a sexual act by assenting to God with all of her being. She is a powerful manifestation of the Universal Mother as she embodied her womanhood in totality.
When I was young, I remember visiting the grotto at Mount Saint Mary’s University, where my mother prayed for me to be born. Mary’s golden statue overlooks the grotto and She preaches compassion to all who look upon Her. The waters represent for me the holy waters of Mary, her healing and miraculous womb. Water is the symbol of the feminine face of God, as Coelho describes: “Maybe because She is the source of life; we are generated in water, and for nine months we live in it. Water is the symbol of the power of woman, the power that no man – no matter how enlightened or perfect he may be – can capture.” Water transforms us, and as a gentle stream or a torrential downpour, it requires us to surrender to its flow. Water enlivens, transfigures, heals, and generates new life.
The Mount Saint Mary’s Grotto Photo Source
As children of God, we are born out of a marriage of the Divine Feminine and Masculine within us. No matter our biological sex, we all can manifest the power of feminine wisdom, compassion, and fertility. The echoes of the Divine Feminine long to sound through us and our relationships to ourselves and other creatures on Earth. We are called to actively participate in this exchange of loving energy – but it requires a risk. We have to give up our control, our preconceptions of love, and be willing to make mistakes. We have to listen carefully to the angels calling us to new levels of compassion, new creations of justice. To create miracles, we have to be vulnerable.
Following the Virgin Mary, how is God calling us to bring forth miracles? Perhaps it is in the way that we breathe, we sing, or write papers during an exam period. Perhaps it is a way to forgiveness and letting go of resentment in a relationship. Perhaps it is learning to pray in a way that respects the holiness of the Divine in all peoples. Or perhaps it is in the way we receive the gift of God in our lives this Christmas. Mary inspires us to open ourselves to the Prince of Peace, the Divine Child, coming to Earth to dwell in our midst.
What seeds for mercy, justice, and compassion are being planted within you this Advent season?
I leave you with a prayer that I learned this summer at Ghost Ranch, written by the leader in Celtic spirituality John Phillip Newell:
“My soul sings of you, O God, My spirit delights in your Presence.
You have cherished my womanhood. You have honored earth’s body.
All will know the sacredness of birth. All will know the gift of life.
Your grace is to those who are open. Your mercy to the humble in heart.
The dreams of the proud crumble. The plans of the powerful fail.
You feed the hungry with goodness. You deny the rich their greed.
The hopes of the poor are precious. The birth pangs of creation are heard.
You have been faithful to the human family. You are the seed of new beginnings.
My soul sings of you, O God. My spirit delights in your Presence.
My soul sings of you, O God. My spirit delights in your Presence.”
(based on Luke 1:46 — 55)