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The Female Mystic

One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying. -- Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Female Mystics
John Collier

Throughout history women seeking spiritual gratification have often found their search influenced by the inferior status and subjection referenced in Genesis and the Epistles of St. Paul. In the third chapter of Genesis woman emerges as a temptress. The innocence of mankind is destroyed because woman insisted on tasting the fruit from the forbidden tree. Due to her eagerness for knowledge and wisdom, Eve is forever guilty of the original sin and she will therefore suffer in childbirth, and be subservient to her husband till the end of time. Since imperfection ostensibly entered the world with Eve's creation the rights of humanity have been confined to the male line from Adam downwards. Hence, it is only logical then that women seem to have played a disproportionate role in the history of mysticism and spiritual religion.

There is an obvious sociological function of these religious beliefs, which assign women to an inferior role. The assignment of a negative role is designed to support the social order and system of values. Accordingly, women who dared to challenge their ascribed 'place' of spiritual subordination were designated as witches. The witch is viewed as one who abuses her power. Elizabeth Janeway referred to the witch as "the shadow and opposite of the loving mother". Joan of Arc was accused of witchcraft by the English because they couldn't deny her power. She had beaten them in the field and they could not permit themselves to believe that such a defeat by a woman was normal. It had to be supernatural and evil, not holy. Accordingly, she was burned as a witch, assigning her for political purposes to a negative role.

The attachment of pejorative labels to women who have economic or political power, and who are feared due to mystical powers, is an assertion of male dominance. This is particularly evident as traditional hierarchies break down and power is no longer bound by customary limits. Mary Daly, referred to as “the grand dame of feminist theology” is a radical feminist separatist who challenges the image of a male gendered God, and encourages a new definition of God which empowers women. In her ground-breaking book, “The Church and the Second Sex” she harshly criticizes the church for it’s historical and current violent misogyny against women, and it’s depiction of women as passive, asexual, supplicant, suffering patiently. In fact, she perceives all religions as expressions of patriarchy, which therefore diminishes women. Daly states, “I came to see that all of the so called major religions from Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as such secular derivatives as Freudianism, Jungianism, Marxism, and Maoism- are mere sects, infrastructures of the edifice of patriarchy.”

Since women are so globally diminished and are struggling to return to female power through reclaiming language and Being, Daly refuses to concern herself with a male perspective. She only embraces the feminine experience. She conceptualizes patriarchy as sameness and stagnation and women as embodying receptivity and procreation asserting the belief that men are inherently inferior to women, even evil. In her worldview the ‘phallic culture’ is devoid of redemption, because it’s foundation is degradation and inhumanity. While I applaud Daly’s courage to radically confront and challenge a male-defined world, and to bring consciousness and female-centered theology to women, I am saddened by her extremist need to relegate all men to inferior status. In her efforts to empower women she has ironically become that which she claims to despise; a misanthropic chauvinist.

A spiritual journey, which aspires to be inclusive, is embodied in Shechinah the Sabbath bride, embodying the feminine aspect of God in Jewish theology. Her presence suggests that God is both masculine and feminine and beyond masculine and feminine. The ‘Hieros Gamos’, or the sacred marriage of opposites (masc/fem), is also symbolically represented in the archetype of the Divine hermaphrodite. The Union of Shechinah and Yahweh affords a more holistic personification of Deity and represents sacred inner and outer unification. The intimate, mothering nature of Shechinah, softens Yahweh, the patriarchal God in Judaism. She is a loving, compassionate, maternal deity who protects her children, whom she dwells amongst in an omnipresent form. As ‘God that dwells with you’, Shechinah is a powerful metaphor of the Jewish diaspora. She is said to accompany her children into exile, although Kabbalists do not believe her primal light is really ever in exile. Hence, even in darkness where there appears to be an absence of mothering, Shechinah’s light thrives as an out-dwelling and in-dwelling force.

Another beacon of female mysticism is Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote and spoke extensively about social justice, sexual relations, and about the natural world as God’s creation, entrusted to our care. She also concerned herself with the curative and medicinal powers of plants, animals, trees and stones. She was a revolutionary composer and a visionary; a brilliant spiritualist, ecologist, naturopath, artist, and intellectual. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes and kings.Hildegard’s story is an inspirational account of a uniquely brilliant woman, born of humble beginnings and transcending life’s obstacles and asperities, so as to be a Divine instrument of God. The hardship she endured as a female theologian and scholar in medieval times, speaks of her resiliency and her devotion to actualizing her life’s works for the good of all.

Mysticism is a mode of thought founded on spiritual illumination or intuition, or simply an interior sense of the presence and love of God. Women who are striving for spiritual fulfillment are also strategically seeking to alleviate the visibility of subordination. Paradoxically it is women’s spiritual strength that both marginalizes and empowers her. Relegated to the fringe she is often deemed a heretic, a saint, a lunatic or a witch, yet by making Divinity her own she transcends these aspersions.

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