Spirituality and wisdom are inseparable. The two are so intertwined in Christian thought that you cannot have one without the other. The root of Christian belief is practice. “As the church prays so the church believes.” Theologically educated people learn this fact. But what many of us fail to understand is that faith and practice continue to inform each other. Christian revelation does not end with the Bible, Church Councils, or even The Reformation. For Christians, revelation is an ongoing process. We may reach conclusions from time to time. We do not get final statements. Creedal orthodoxy must be open to this. Progressive Christians already are. And then we forget to look for it based on other biases. Bias keeps us from seeking wisdom when we believe we already possess it.
An in-home hospice chaplain once observed that older Appalachian people tended to have images of the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their homes. Denominational distinctions did not matter. Both of my maternal grandparents were “brought home” after their deaths for “visitation.” The funeral home workers set the open caskets under their tapestry of the Sacred Heart.
I had not thought about it much. But the images were not part of any spirituality promoted by the churches in the area. My grandfather was raised Methodist and later became Baptist. My grandmother never claimed the “salvation” promised by these churches. The Sacred Heart was present even though neither of them knew it was a “Catholic thing.”
Appalachian evangelical families that have an image of Mary never think of it as “Catholic” either. For them, watching a televangelist on the screen with the Blessed Virgin nearby is very Christian. What is happening? These people believe both narratives of the Virgin Birth. They hold onto the Ten Commandments for dear life. But these images are not idols. They are images of wisdom.
The Divine Feminine
There is another truth here. Momma leads the family to Church. The pastors are often male. The church members insist on it for the most part. They pray to God the Father. And they almost all have a low Christology. Jesus saves them from the judgement and teaches. My very devout aunt said, “Some people say Jesus is God.” In her mind, the Son of God could no more be God than her brother could be her father. This type of practical Arianism leaves a desire that can only be filled by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit is immanent. God the Father is transcendent. We could look at it this way. Sunday represents God the Father. Every other day is for the Spirit. Older Appalachian people remember the drudgery of day to day living. Survival was living. One had to know how. Wisdom in this context is more about knowing how than knowing what. Living beyond survival requires knowing how to plan, prepare, and when to act. The mothers make this happen.
The Virgin Mary is the image of this present wisdom of the Spirit. She represents everything about wise motherhood in the lives of Appalachian families. The Sacred Heart represents the divine mercy that makes living possible. Families and communities worked together to make life worthwhile. Often there was no community without one’s family.
The Pitfall of Mere Survival
There is a drawback in this kind of wisdom. Very little deviation is allowed. My grandparents planted “by the signs.” The Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac were authoritative. They and their neighbors lived by set patterns. Any suggestion of doing things differently were greeted with suspicion. After all, what happens if you fail? Life fails to work out. It is a common problem where ever making a living is difficult. The human mind and curiosity are victims of this pattern of life.
The human spirit becomes a victim of this pattern too. I mentioned salvation offered by the churches earlier. What many of these congregations understand about salvation is that it is surviving spiritually. A Thriving spirituality is a luxury when one is merely avoiding damnation. The spirit is stunted by the repeated concern, “Are you saved?” If that is all spirituality means, then why deviated with spiritual questions?
The Divine Feminine And Wisdom
Wisdom as knowing how is where the desire for the divine feminine originates. But it also is rebellion against mere survival. Mother Mary and the Sacred Heart represent spirituality beyond merely finding guidance from the Bible. They connect to a reality beyond the everyday drudgery. And the represent the desire to enjoy what would be luxury.
Why else would poor women plant flowers just to have them? Why would children befriend animals including taking the runt piglet to “pet down?” What was the point of having any joy at all? The wisdom of the divine feminine makes these gifts.
What did the Sacred Heart of Jesus mean when the bodies of my grandparents lay under the image? It testified that their lives had meaning beyond their livelihoods. They were no longer givers or caretakers. They always are special and precious.
How I Learned It
My grandpa told me how and when to plant by the signs of the moon. He also imparted the wisdom of when to cut lumber and stack it by the same signs.
My grandma taught me about foraging certain foods and preparing meat birds.
Then I learned something more important. Every Sunday morning biscuits were made. They could have been made by one of my two aunts who lived at home. Or my grandma would make them. Some were left over for the afternoon when I would get one. I was challenged to answer, “Who made them?” They beamed with joy when I correctly identified the baker. Grandma was especially pleased when I got hers right.