I’ve been trying to read Carol Lee Flinders’ book Enduring Grace and am having to confront my repugnance for asceticism. The first female mystic Flinders writes about is St.Clare of Assisi, who “through excessive fasting… did put herself in jeopardy… For decades of her life she was too weakened to walk.”
Having struggled with a tendency to starve myself in high school and later in life - which in my case sprang from issues of self-worth rather than spiritual ideals - I balk at spiritual practices that require that I turn against my body.
Flinders does examine asceticism and what it meant for 13th century mystics vs the modern response. She explains, “For the budding mystic, then, who has glimpsed the possibility that we are in truth one, eternal, and infinite, it becomes imperative to break once and for all the nexus that seems to connect soul and body.” It’s not a nexus I feel driven to break, and Flinders does add that this topic is “particularly vexing to modern readers.”
The extreme self-mortification of some of these mystics reminds me of the Penguin Life biography of Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray. According to Gray, Weil’s philosophy is intertwined with her discomfort with food and sex. A google search reveals that Gray’s labeling of Weil’s approach to food as “anorexic” is controversial (see this Philosophy Now article and also This New York Times article, The Gender Politics of Fasting). The Philosophy Now Article describes Weil’s death this way: “She fell ill with tuberculosis and, weakened by her refusal to eat (for she could not, she said, when her people in France were starving), she died in August 1943, aged 34. Her English doctor said that it was suicide ‘while the balance of her mind was disturbed’, but to her, perhaps, it was simply abandonment to divine providence – letting God’s will be done – in an act of ‘decreative’ humility and submission, solidarity and truth.”
“'Decreative' humility” has such a dampening effect on my spirit.
Flinders admits to also feeling uncomfortable with the ascetic extremes of the women she writes about. In the preface, Flinders writes “the overall tenor of their lives was daunting. The terrible austerity - the single mindedness with which they turned their backs on ordinary satisfactions - frightened me, seemed at times fanatic. Still, I kept coming back… finding here and there intriguing evidence that within their own very different contexts, these women might have been grappling with some of the same personal issues that my contemporaries are, and often even with the same imagery.”
Unlike Flinders, I couldn’t get past the self-noughting and mortification of the flesh, so I’ve turned instead to books where the body and its pleasures are not seen as hindrances to spirituality. Perhaps the body is even a gateway, a channel for spiritual experience.
In Longing for Darkness, China Galland interviews Polish Professor Andrzej Wiercinski, who explains, “The material world is the female side of God, mater. The problem is that we don’t recognize it, so we are consumed by it rather than nourished. We are under the spell of mater-iality…”
In If Women Rose Rooted, Sharon Blackie describes her search for a path beyond the spell of mater-iality - what she calls the Wasteland - toward a deeper and more fulfilling connection with the land, the body, myth and creativity. Blackie interviews Lucy Pearce about the Creative Rainbow Mother archetype and the way “creativity helps us to be more fully alive on every level, asking that we engage with life in a visceral and interactive way.” This is such a vital and vibrant - creative rather than 'decreative' - way to engage with life, the body and spirituality.
(Although Pearce believes “creativity is at its peak during pregnancy,” I know this to be untrue. The only thing that gave me nausea when I was pregnant with my second daughter was engaging creatively with color, fabric, texture. Also, I think of the massively creative women who never had children - Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, Iris Apfel, Grace Coddington, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Helen Frankenthaler…..the list goes on. While women’s ability to give birth should be celebrated, it’s not the only path to a rich creative life. Blackie is also ambivalent about the connection between women’s creative and procreative abilities. Blackie writes of her “equivocal reaction to archetypes of womanhood which focus on pregnancy and giving birth - because for centuries, that has been one of the few activities for which women have been valued, and the only source of their power.)
I’m also enjoying This Is Woman’s Work by Dominique Christina who is exploring all kinds of archetypal feminine energies. Her representations don’t always jibe with my experiences, but she’s very clear that she’s expressing her own understanding of these energies. It’s not a rigorous scholarly study. It’s felt experience expressed from Christina’s own point of view and with her own poetry. As Christina writes, “This work is about my truth, not necessarily the truth. And I offer it as a means to help you find and navigate your truth.” And while Christina writes about the Wombed Woman and the Woman with the Cool Hands archetypes, which are oriented toward mothering and care-giving, she also examines the Rebel Woman, “her knapsack full/ Of rumble and stomp” (which delightfully reminds me of V.I. Warshawski), the Conjure Woman, “a magic thing/ Keepin’ lemon balm and lightning bugs” and sixteen other archetypes. I enjoy the possibilities present in these archetypes, many of which offer additional paths to mystical experience.
Flinders defines the mystic as someone who has "made the experiential discovery that the source of all meaning - the God of truth, beauty, and love, if you will - is a living presence within herself or himself."
There are many paths to such a discovery. For some that might mean rigorous asceticism and for others there might be what Anne Lamott calls "a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation.” Dominique Christina seems to experience this living presence through writing.
"Creation is meditation. An offering. Something cosmic. Something permanent. It will sound blasphemous to some, but writing tells me exactly what the divine is and where. It is as close as I get to God awareness. I don't feel it from a far off place. It isn't poised aloof and in the abstract. I feel it from the inside - from the center of myself."