I have been astounded over the past few days by the sheer number of women who have come to me or posted on social media about how precisely I am describing their experience. I knew that I wasn’t an outlier. I knew I wasn’t alone. I had forgotten how common it is, especially for religious women, to succumb to the idea that treating yourself terribly is necessary for holiness.
Ladies, God did not make half of the human race to be trampled on. He didn’t make real people who deserve to have goals and projects and hopes and dignity, and then also a whole bunch of supporting people whose sole job is to prop up the real people.
We, women, are daughters, friends, sisters, brides and mothers of God. God does not despise us or expect us to despise ourselves. And it is not pleasing to God when we set ourselves alight on the altar of other people’s expectations and demands.
We are ends in ourselves, not merely a means to the ends of others.
God hates human sacrifice. That includes self-immolation. When we are tempted to make a burnt offering of ourselves we need to once again go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt. 9:13)
Mary, Breaker of Chains, Release Us
Alright, but how?
I’ve definitely seen Christian teachers, many of them men, point out that women have to stop exhausting themselves. That we need to learn to love ourselves. That self-hatred is not good.
But once you are in pursuit of self-destructive “virtue” this seems like just another onerous command. “Oh. So it’s not good enough that I’m pouring myself out for all of these other people, and taking care of all of these children, and being loving and patient with my husband, and being respectful to religious authority, and building up my parish at the local level while also proclaiming the gospel to the world. I’m also supposed to find time and energy for ‘self-care’? Otherwise I’m guilty of self-hatred, and that’s a sin too? #&*$^%*$&%^&#*$&%!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Which makes sense, because when everyone has encouraged you to push yourself to the limit, and now you have collapsed, and they’re suddenly they’re saying “Woah! You’re exhausted. Why did you let that happen to yourself?” It really, really comes across like you’re being blamed for the fact that doing what you were told to do completely burned you out.
And it doesn’t help that very often the obligation to care for oneself is framed in terms of obligation to others: “You can’t draw water from an empty well. You have to take care of yourself or else you won’t have anything to give.” So it’s not that we have an obligation to love ourselves because we are worthy of being loved, it’s that we can’t afford “let” ourselves become exhausted because so many other people need us.
It feels like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And even loving yourself is something you do for someone else.
From the Jaws of Lions, Rescue Us
Self-love should not be a burden. It should come naturally, instinctively. But many of us women have had those instincts silenced, punished, shut-down. We’ve been praised for ignoring our instincts, and shamed for having instincts in the first place.
So we learn to replace our instincts with other people’s ideas. We start to think that on a deep-down, visceral level our thoughts, our desires, our bodies, our intuitions and our personalities are bad. That if we trust ourselves, even a little bit, we will lead ourselves astray. Because we are so broken, so sinful, so lustful, prideful, gluttonous, slothful, resentful. We cannot trust ourselves. So we must give authority over our lives to others who know better.
Almost invariably, the others who know better are men. Also, by a strange coincidence, the people telling us that it is dangerous for us to trust our instincts are men. And when we look at what is supposed to make us “truly happy” it turns out that true happiness lies in sacrificing ourselves in order to meet the needs of men.
Girl, if a man tells you that the only way that you can be happy is to climb up on this here altar and let him cut your heart out and devour it RUN. Run as far and as fast as you can. That man does not mean you well. No matter how kind and charismatic and holy he appears. If he is telling you that your happiness consists in giving up your projects in order to do his will he is a predator.
Don’t be the deer in his headlights. Don’t be the rabbit in his jaws. Don’t lay down on the ground and let him sink his teeth into you while you shiver and wait for the endorphins to kick in enough that you won’t feel the pain.
If he is literally telling you come wrestle with a lion, a dangerous lion, not a friendly one, because the lion really loves you and that’s why he’s leaping on your chest and pinning you down. Out of love. DO NOT BELIEVE HIM. The lion-in-priests-clothing means to do with you exactly what a real lion would do.
Run. You have the same right that is given to every living creature on God’s earth. The right to preserve yourself. The right to say “no” to the predator. The right to flee.
This is nature. It’s written in your flesh. It’s written in your bones. It’s written on your heart. By the hand that made the world.
If there is a natural law, if the idea of a natural law makes even the slightest shred of sense, then this is its first precept: that you have a right to live. And that includes a right to protect yourself. And that includes a right to say “no” when the predator tells you to lie down and offer yourself up to his teeth.
It’s true in sex, of the right to refuse a rapist. It’s true in the rest of life as well. Even in faith.
From Man-Made Altars, Save Us
But what if you’re already on the ground. Already pinned. Too exhausted to get up?
So, the other night I had a dream. It was nightmare, really, and I awoke quite shaken. But nightmares too contain wisdom.
In the nightmare there was a strong “god.” He kinda looked like Thanos. And he demanded sacrifice. There was a part of myself that offered herself up willingly. But we knew that the demon who posed as a divinity needed to be destroyed, so before she offered herself up she ate something that would be poisonous, unpalatable, to the destroyer.
And she was not eaten.
This is the good news. Even if you are totally crushed and exhausted, you can make yourself unpalatable. Even when you feel too weak to escape, there are things that you can do that will make the predator back away.
If you are alive, it’s not too late.
The way we make ourselves unpalatable is by refusing to be “perfect.” The ancient motif of a virgin sacrifice exists for a reason: the dark gods who call for women’s bodies, women’s souls, want us to be perfect, pure, unstained. They want us to entirely empty ourselves of our own desires, appetites, projects and preferences so that they can fill us up with theirs.
And at some point, we become so empty of ourselves, so full of their projections, that we are like a fattened sheep. Too late, we realize the knife is being sharpened. Too late, we understand that while they were fattening us up with praise for our virtue, our femininity, our generosity, they were laying the table for their feast.
But it’s not too late.
If we wish to escape, we begin by accepting that we are powerless. We can’t convince the predator to let us up. He’s got us where he wants us. He isn’t letting go.
We accepted that we were powerless. So we turned to a higher power.
From Easeful Death, Deliver Us
This part of the process, acceptance of powerlessness, is in many ways the most difficult. Holding fast, struggling, and waiting to be rescued. It seems like it would just be so much easier to close your eyes, be good prey, let yourself and your potential be consumed.A lot of women get stuck for years, decades even, wanting to escape, knowing they need to escape, but still submitting to the predator because he hurts you if you try to fight back.
Do. Not. Go. Gentle.
You may not be able to get away, but you can resist and resistance is enough.
What does resistance look like? It depends how much strength you have. Most women who have hit their breaking point are barely able to move. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, even physically we may feel like even the most cursory efforts are impossible.
Yet, somehow we keep finding the energy to do as we’re told.
Here’s where acceptance of powerlessness becomes so crucial. The reason we keep doing as we’re told is that we think if we do then one day it will be enough. We will be deemed worthy. We will have given enough. We will receive a reward. We will be allowed to lay down in those green pastures beside the still waters.
That will never happen. A man (or woman) who tells you that you need to do as they say in order to “earn” the right to be deemed worthy of the most basic rights, to be worthy even of existence, is never going to say “Well done. That’s enough.” They feel entitled to your energy, your effort, your sacrifices. Even when they say “You’re exhausted. You should rest more” what they mean is “You’d better get some rest because I’ve got work for you to do.”
Nothing you do will ever be enough. Enough, in their mind, is when you’ve literally died trying to please them.
Good Shepherdess, Defend Us
The Good Shepherd is not like this. He does not devour every last scrap of your energy. When you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death he is right there with you, protecting you, not making demands.
I remember when I was sunk deep in self-martyrdom I thought that the shepherd’s rod and staff comforted the sheep because they punished it if it went astray. That their primary purpose was for disciplining sheep.
Here’s David, describing how he used that rod: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.” (1 Sam. 17: 34-35)
The rod and the staff comfort the sheep because the shepherd uses them to beat up predators, not because he uses them to beat the sheep.
It is safe to acknowledge our powerlessness before the Good Shepherd because our powerlessness consists mostly in our inability to earn God’s love.
There is not a single thing that you can do to make God love you. Not a single sacrifice that you can make to become worthy. No matter how hard you try to obey all of the rules so that you can become a Saint, you will never succeed.
Because you cannot earn the foundation of your being. You can’t grasp the air you breathe. You exist because you are loved. You can’t pay God back for that any more than you can pay your mother back for the pains of labour.
And like a good mother, God doesn’t even want you to.
You are powerless to earn God’s love because it is given freely, without condition, reservation or fine print.
You are also powerless to earn the esteem of those who want you to serve them as if they were God. Their hunger is insatiable. The more you give them the more they will demand.
So stop trying. You don’t have that kind of energy to waste.
Champion of the Lowly, Succour Us
Easier said than done, I get that. Once you start resisting, you will become exhausted very quickly. You will lie down and wish for death again. You will run out of strength.
Don’t worry about it. Maybe today you say “I’m not cooking supper tonight. I’m sick. We can order take out.” You’re not ready to say “My husband can cook,” but you’re ready to dip into the family budget a bit to provide for your needs.
Then your husband whines about how hard he had to work for his money, and next day, even though you’re still sick, you’re back in the kitchen. It’s okay. That one day you said a little no. Rest now. Regain strength.
Or maybe today you say “I refuse to go into a small dark box and tell an old man about my sexual fantasies. They’re not his business. They harm no one. It’s not a sin to have thoughts that literally everybody has.”
Then later you’re in the communion line and your scruples get the better of you. You don’t take communion that day because you’re consumed with fear and shame.
It’s alright. You said no to the idea that normal, private human thoughts are evil. You said no to the idea that you’re a bad person because you have natural desires. You refused to believe that you need a man to intercede for you so that God won’t torture you in hell for being a human being.
Acts of resistance can be this small. This nearly imperceptible. They can be so little that you’re almost ashamed that this is all you can do stand up for yourself.
It’s okay. Rest. Recover. Do it again the next time you can. Little by little, as you refuse to give away your energy and your agency, you will get stronger. Little by little. It will be enough.
Mother Most Terrible, Pray for Us
This is how it happens. You are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. You feel like Job. You turn to God and say “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve done everything I was told to. Why am I so afflicted.”
And God will say “Have you seen Leviathan. Can you put a ring in his nose?”
And you will be so pissed off. Have you seen Leviathan? Seriously? I’m suffering, crushed, in agony, begging for death and You answer me by bragging about a sea monster? WTF?
But God answer is everything. It says that the sea monster is God’s creature, and God is proud of its strength. It cannot be tamed. Domesticated. Scolded. Put in its place.
In all of the great mythologies of the ancient middle east, the sea monster is this great, dark, primordial goddess that must be conquered by the manly god of light. It must be thrust down, dismembered, buried. But not in the Book of Job.
In Job God is saying “I made that. That too. You’re not suffering because you deserve it or because I’m mad at you. You’re suffering because suffering is part of life. All of the people telling you that your suffering is your fault are idiots. Now look at this monster I made. Isn’t it cool?”
And then you feel Leviathan stirring in the depths of your being.
You realize that all of the seemingly feeble efforts you’ve been making are just the ripples on the surface. That something is rising. Something capable of leveling mountains and casting the mighty from their thrones.
Your soul, your strength, your dignity is rising. The power of the indwelling spirit is rising. The woman terrible as an army set in battle array is rising.
And ain’t no man gonna put a ring through your nose.
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