Faithful Women in a Difficult World

“Don’t engage them,” my friend Wendy said gently, as her arm hooked around my waist and pulled me back from the curb. Walking back from lunch during General Conference in 2012, I had drawn in my breath sharply when I saw the signs from a certain church in Westboro, attacking, among other things, women of the cloth. I had just been about to go into “why I oughta” Popeye mode, when Wendy reminded me of the better way. Wendy and her friends stood along the curb, encouraging people to be loving and gentle and peaceful; not to return hurt for hurt; and shielding as many eyes as possible from the hateful words on the signs. Turn the other cheek if I’ve ever seen it.

Wendy’s example came strongly to mind last week as I observed chatter on Facebook about whether or not to engage a religious/political group that had put harmfully worded statements about women and racial/ethnic minorities out into the blogosphere. One friend attempted to engage by writing his own blog; then others voiced their opinions on whether or not it was even worth engaging. In typical fashion, I did a half-cocked “why I oughta” before the sense of Wendy’s arm reached around my waist all the way from South Carolina, reminding me of a better way.

It was partly reflecting on Wendy’s approach to life, and partly my recent viewing of Vision, a biopic of the Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen, that led me to my own epiphany on this Epiphany Day.

For my whole life, I have been aware of the existence of what the world calls “difficult women.” I remember hearing them called “Feminazi’s” on the radio as I rode to school in the morning. I remember hearing them preached against, teached against, prayed against, and talked against at school and at church. I remember my first experience of being accused of being one on a service trip in Canada as a youth – and the moment I realized at fourteen that I was one. I remember when I first learned that you could use humor to cope when I saw the quote printed on a card “Well-behaved women seldom make history” – the card seeming to wink at me and offer hope that there were other women like me and someday I would find them. I remember choosing to accept my calling to the clergy, knowing it would label me forever in the conservative world I grew up in as a “difficult woman” and possibly even a heretic. I remember the first time a man, with what felt like every bit of power over my life, tried with every ounce of that power to make an example of me – and I remember the miraculous moment when he failed.

Yet, at some point in the not to distant past, I began to think that in order to cope with the world’s fearful derision of female leaders, we needed something more than humor and sisterhood and prayer. I was looking for something else. Another layer. A deeper truth.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta primed the pump for my epiphany, as I read Come Be My Light, a collection of Teresa’s most personal letters. In her letters, I found a Teresa I had not known existed – an extraordinarily “difficult woman.” There was something warm and liberating about that, to know that this woman, so beloved for her compassion and sacrifice, was one of us after all – another “how do you solve a problem like Maria” nun. Throughout her letters, Teresa reveals herself to be a woman who is striving so very hard to be submissive, and succeeding in her own way. She knows that God has a calling for her life, but because of the structure of her institution, it is difficult for her to live it out. Striving to remain in submission, she waits for the blessing of the Pope, but in the process she badgers every church leader who comes near her with endless letters, seeking an advocate in an institution where young women had little power. In the end it is her own pen, personality and voice that becomes her advocate. Finally, after years of waiting and letter writing, refusing to give up even when she is repeatedly asked to do so, she receives permission and blessing to begin her own Order.

The realization began to dawn on me that while Teresa had her reasons for not wanting her own unique brand of submission to be made public, the Catholic Church was right that the world is a better place for the truth of her struggle to be made known. Although, I would assume that it was more her spiritual struggle than her institutional struggle that they intended to divulge. As little as I expected it when I began to read, looking out over the Caribbean Sea one evening on Eleuthera, that book revealed to me a woman who had to fight for her calling, fight for what she believed in, and learn how to wait until the time was right.

I found a thoroughly unexpected, thoroughly difficult woman.

Teresa began to challenge me to reevaluate my understanding of what it looks like to be a feminist, womanist, mujerista, “difficult” woman.

Which brings us back to Hildegard von Bingen and my dear friend Wendy. As one who suffers under the same assumptions from others, I have no illusions that Wendy’s life has been easy, nor Hildegard’s. Yet, despite whatever struggles and challenges arise, they kept moving forward and making a difference.

As I viewed, Vision, a presentation of Hildegard’s life, I watched as she became a nun; then the head nun; and then as she demanded, and after much struggle acquired, a convent of her own, separate from the Benedictine brothers and not under submission to their abbot. As the story progressed, an emotion began to arise in me that I finally was able to identify as admiration. This woman was a brilliant scientist and scholar during a time when that was not normative. She was a leader who stood up for and protected her sisters. And while it has to be stated that as a woman of privilege she had access to another type of life than most women during the time, she certainly used it in a different way than most women of privilege. She became so well respected as a mystic that she was actually permitted to preach during a time when women were not permitted by canon law.

She preached. I love to see those two words put together – “she” and “preached” – when speaking of a woman from the 12th century.

As I watched Hildegard ride off into the sunset to go preach in the final scene of the film, I realized something. Hildegard was not a difficult woman. She was an extraordinary woman. An amazing woman. An awe-inspiring woman. She did the things that she did not because she was difficult but because she was faithful.

Difficult does not define us. Faithful does.

Hildegard and Teresa were church leaders in their own way who were willing to submit, just not to injustice. They were not difficult, they were determined. They were not rebellious, they were called. They did not have problems with authority, they were submitted to a higher authority – and they were incapable of obeying the laws of man over the laws of God. For them that meant forging a new path, a very difficult one, and finding a way to live out their calling in a church and in a world that did not already have a template for them to fill out or a box they could fit inside.

There is no such thing as a difficult woman. There is only a difficult world. A world that makes it difficult for us to be who we are called to be. It is only when we insist upon a calling that seeks to transform that difficult world, that the world turns on us and calls us difficult.

Which is why the world needs more Teresas and Hildegards… and Wendys. It needs them to inspire women trying to find their own calling, and show us we do not have to change who we are; to reach around our waists and pull us back when it is not the time for “why I oughta”; and to show us when the time is right to speak the truth boldly in love.

My epiphany is that these women are not difficult women. They are profoundly faithful women. It takes a whole lot of courage to be a faithful woman in such a difficult world.

What beautifully difficult women
What beautifully difficult women

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