Thanks to my fabulous RS president, my ward had an RS-centric sacrament meeting last Sunday, to observe the Relief Society birthday. I gave one of the talks, and several people requested that I blog it–so here it is. (This is a longer version of the talk I actually gave, since I was trying not to go over on time.)
I had a lot of fun thinking about this talk, because once I started making a list, I realized just how many women have inspired me and influenced both my faith and the way I see the world. To name just a few: Eliza R. Snow, arguably the first female theologian in the church, whose poem that became our hymn “O My Father” presented the doctrine of Heavenly Mother. As a theologian, I find that an encouraging precedent.1 Or Pulitzer Prize-winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who gives me hope that I can integrate various aspects of who I am when she writes “I am a Mormon. And a feminist. As a daughter of God, I claim the right to all my gifts.”2 Or Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose book She Who Is has made me seriously think about the importance of the divine feminine.3. Or Deborah of the Old Testament, who served as both a prophetess and a judge. Or poet and essayist Kathleen Norris, whose thoughtful writings about faith have left me with much to ponder.4 But for this talk, since you probably would prefer I didn’t go on for hours, I will limit myself to a few particular women.
Chieko Okazaki was a member of the general Relief Society presidency in the 1990s. I found that she had a particular gift for writing and speaking in a way that didn’t make the gospel seem discouraging or overwhelming—which is sometimes how I feel about it, I must admit—but rather pointed me to what really matters. Reading what she has to say makes me want to be a better person, and reminds me of the importance of living a Christ-centered life. She emphasizes again and again that we should bring our whole selves to the Savior, and not feel like we need to leave things out. She describes a God who wants to be a part of our lives. In one of my favorite books, Lighten Up, she writes, “He’s not waiting for us to be perfect. Perfect people don’t need a Savior. He came to save us in our imperfections. He is the Lord of the living, and the living make mistakes. He’s not embarrassed by us, angry at us, or shocked. He wants us in our brokenness, in our unhappiness, in our guilt and in our grief.”5 And similarly:
The Savior does not call us to abandon the world; he calls us to come unto him so that he can heal us and make us whole.
I think we sometimes have the mistaken notion that religion is like a special room in our house. We go into this room when we need to ‘do’ religion. . . .
Rather than think of spiritual life as a separate room, let’s think of it as paint on the walls of all the rooms, or maybe a scent in the air that drifts through the whole house . . becoming part of the air we breathe. Our spiritual lives should be our lives, not just a separate part of our lives.6
Sister Okazaki conveyed a number of other insights that have stayed with me over the years. One is that judging others is actually a burden; she writes, “When we set aside the burden of judgment, then our hands and hearts are free to serve other with joy.”7 Another is that God doesn’t want us to have a relationship with him based on guilt.8 That observation has helped me a lot in my own relationship with God. I’ve also been influenced by her thoughts on service:
Service may be a duty and a responsibility, but it is also voluntary, not compulsory. If your service is starting to feel like a job, then you need to change things to get the joy back. I think that often the problem is that we are no longer choosing. We are not seeing needs. Someone else is. And we are not responding to the need of an individual whose need we see. We’re just responding to an assignment instead of choosing to help a brother or sister.9
I very much appreciate her vision of service as not always having to be a complicated effort, but sometimes just seeing a need that we can help with, and doing what we can to meet it.
Another woman who has deeply influenced me is a medieval mystic by the name of Julian of Norwich. I think of her as kind of a 14th century version of Chieko Okazaki; her writing is a balm to the troubled soul. Julian records a remarkable vision she had at the age of 30, in which she had an extended conversation with God. As Latter-day Saints we might have a different angle on some of her theological perspectives, but I think we can very much appreciate her depiction of God as someone who is gentle and caring, who yearns for us even as we yearn for him. In one of her more famous passages, she sees the world as a hazelnut, and explains that “It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”10 I love that image of God’s love pervading the world, and the possibility that existence is inextricably connected to love.
Julian relates a parable she was shown during this vision, one that involved a servant and a lord. The servant rushes to do his lord’s will, and falls into a ditch. He then lies there in anguish. And in all of this, says Julian, “the greatest hurt which I saw him in was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord.”11Sight, then, plays a significant role in this; the servant suffers because he “neither sees clearly his loving lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord.”12The lord is not condemning him, but he is not able to see that. God, explains Julian, wants us to “see truly and know our falling,” but also to “truly see and know the everlasting love which he has for us, and his plentiful mercy.”13 I am reminded of Ether 12:27, which says that if we come unto Christ he will show unto us our weakness. This passage has at times been challenging for me, because I don’t generally enjoy people showing me my weakness. But when I think about it in the context of this parable, I think about how we stumble and fall and realize that we cannot do it alone—but God’s grace, as both Moroni and Julian testify, is sufficient.
For Julian God’s goodness is always strong and incomparably near to us. She states that our soul “is so specially loved by him that is highest, that it surpasses the knowledge of all created beings. That is to say, there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us.”14 And to cite just one more passage that has touched me, the Lord shows Julian that she will sin, and she sorrows and is afraid. But “in answer to this our Lord said: I protect you very safely.”15 There’s a lot of fascinating theology going on here, but I especially appreciate the vision of a God who is not going to give up on you when you sin.
Another woman whose work I have enjoyed is Sandra Schneiders, a biblical scholar and professor emeritus at the Jesuit school that is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. What I want to look at here is her reading of the story of the woman at the well found in John 4. In the traditional way this story gets read, Jesus catches the woman out, so to speak, in revealing his knowledge that she has had five husbands and now lives with someone who is not her husband. This then becomes another in a long line of stories which describe women with scandalous pasts: a tale of another fallen woman in need of redemption. But Schneiders’ take on this is quite different. First of all, she proposes that the woman is a symbolic character. I will admit that I tend to be wary of jumping too quickly to symbolic interpretations of scripture, but I find this one fairly compelling. Schneiders proposes that the woman is “symbolic not only of the Samaritans who come to Jesus” but also “of the New Israel who is given to Jesus the Bridegroom ‘from above.’”16 This suggests that we should be hesitant to assume that this is a story about this woman’s morally dubious past.
Strikingly, the woman from the beginning has a conversation with Jesus that is “religious and even theological.” She questions both Jesus’ “speaking in public to a woman and asking to share utensils with a Samaritan,” and “his implication, in the offer of living water, that he is on a par with Jacob, who gave the well to Israel.”17 In the course of the conversation she recognizes Jesus as a prophet, and asks him about true worship: should it take place “on Mount Gerizim, as the Samaritans held or in Jerusalem, as the Jews believed.” A significant point here is that “according to Samaritan theology the messiah would be, not a descendent of David, but rather a prophet like Moses . . . who upon his return, would reveal all things and restore true worship.” The woman at the well, then, “is pursuing a careful investigation of the identity of Jesus.” Jesus speaks of true worship as being “in spirit and truth.” At this point, “the woman suspects his messianic identity.” Jesus confirms this and “reveals himself not only as the prophetic messiah of Samaritan expectation but as . . . the ‘I am’ of the Mosaic revelation.”18
This is an important context for the discussion of the five husbands. Crucially, this particular exchange isn’t separate from the theological discussion about right worship and Jesus’ identity, as it might at first appear. Rather, it is an integral part of the conversation. Schneiders argues that it is “symbolically the incorporation of Samaria into the New Israel, the bride of New Bridegroom.” This reflects back to the Old Testament tradition of connecting idolatry to adultery when talking about God’s relationship with Israel. The five husbands, then, can be seen as symbolic of the Samaritan worship of “the false gods of five foreign tribes.”19 And since “Samarian Yahwism was tainted by false worship,” then “even the husband she now has (a reference to the relationship of the God of the Covenant) was not really her husband in the full integrity of covenantal relationship.” This means that “the woman is correctly (even if unwittingly) using the prophetic metaphor to describe the religious situation of her people.”20
This is a very different story than one in which Jesus demonstrates his superhuman knowledge by bringing up the five husbands. And when the woman responds, “I perceive that you are a prophet,” she is not changing the subject. Rather, she is acknowledging what he has said, as Jesus’ declaration “is a classic prophetic denunciation of false worship.” The dialogue is about “the covenant life of the community,” and the woman “is a genuine theological dialogue partner gradually experiencing Jesus’ self-revelation even as she reveals herself to him.”21 The woman’s actions also parallel those of the male disciples when she leaves behind her water jar and heads back to the city, in a similar fashion to how they left “ordinary life to follow Jesus and become apostles.”22 I find this a powerful story for several reasons. In particular, we sometimes talk about how much Jesus respected women (which I find somewhat odd, given that we do not talk about how much Jesus respected men). But here we see Jesus treating a woman not in terms of some kind of honored gender role, but simply engaging her as full human being.
I would like to briefly mention one more woman who has deeply influenced my faith: the poet Mary Oliver. When I have found myself in dark places, her poetry has given me hope. I love it for its aliveness. She challenges me, asking: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”23 Similarly, she writes:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.24
When I read her words, I find myself feeling more connected to life, to the things that really matter.
In sum, I very much appreciate the women, both in and out of the church, who have played a role in shaping my faith. And I would like to conclude with one of the most famous lines from Julian: “ All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”25
- I am grateful to Deidre Green for this observation. [↩]
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Border Crossings,” All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich & Emma Lou Thayne (Salt Lake: Aspen Books, 1995), 198. [↩]
- Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992 [↩]
- Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998). [↩]
- Chieko Okazaki, Lighten Up (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 176. [↩]
- Ibid., 172-3. [↩]
- Chieko Okazaki, Aloha! (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1995), 111. [↩]
- See Ibid., 133. [↩]
- Ibid., 85. [↩]
- Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans., Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 183. [↩]
- Ibid., 267. [↩]
- Ibid., 270-1. [↩]
- Ibid. 281. [↩]
- Ibid., 186. [↩]
- Ibid., 241. [↩]
- Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 189. [↩]
- Ibid., 189. [↩]
- Ibid., 189-90. [↩]
- Ibid., 190. [↩]
- Ibid., 191. [↩]
- Ibid., 191. [↩]
- Ibid., 192. [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94. [↩]
- Ibid., “When Death Comes,” 10-11. [↩]
- Julian, 225. [↩]