“The actual threshold between life and death, this doorway between the world of spirits and the physical world of matter, exists in the bodies of women, and their magic is their womb and its systems (placenta, umbilical cord, and fluids) and the feminine energy…together these elements are the literal doorway, the magical threshold between energy and physical matter made manifest. This is divinity on earth.” – Karyn Crisis, Italian Magic: Secret Lives of Women
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I never wanted to be a priest. In all my years as a devout Catholic, I never once thought that I wished I could be a priest. Perhaps some people will say that it’s a sign of just how deeply ingrained the misogyny in the church is, that devout women are unable to see themselves in the role of ordained ministry. To some it may be taken as a sign that women shouldn’t be ordained. Let me be clear, I don’t think that. It never made sense to me why the church wouldn’t ordain women while claiming to be an institution that values women. Of course, it makes all the sense in the world when you realize that the core of the church’s concept of ordination and calling is rooted in misogyny and fear of the Divine Feminine.
Despite never wanting to be a priest, I found myself in various situations in my life as an adolescent and young adult where I was asked to exert spiritual leadership in one way or another. When I was sixteen, it was being chosen to give the youth group post-retreat talk to my parish congregation, describing our experience. In college, it was being asked to be part of a retreat team or missions trip. I was asked as a senior in college by a favorite professor to teach a class one day on the topic of Mary Magdalene and her role in the early church, due to a research paper I’d written for her. I was a politically and spiritually active young woman, and had no problem disagreeing with the church in places where I knew her to be wrong.
What’s remarkable is that even when I was inside the world of conservative Catholicism, attending a Latin Mass parish, and then a less Traditionalist but still very conservative parish, I still found myself in several spiritual leadership roles, despite being less conservative than most people around me. Facilitating theological studies for women, helping lead a women’s retreat, acting as an NFP (Natural Family Planning) teacher and coach for couples. I narrowly avoided being part of a parish council, praise be.
Often, I would feel a sense of hesitation about taking on these roles. I rarely ever sought them out. Usually what I was after was being part of a community of spiritual women. I was looking for my coven, though I would never have said it in such a way at the time. Having no mother or sisters, I was looking for a place to belong with other women, where the stuff of our souls and our lives could be poured out and shared, strengthening us all.
Despite forming friendships with quite a few wonderful women along the way, I never felt truly satisfied in these spaces. There was always a sense of needing to stay within the lines. Could I really tell these women about my dreams, that they didn’t involve baby after baby and a life confined to the walls of my home? Could I admit I was unhappy in my marriage and felt I was lacking the true partner I dreamed of? I knew for sure the truth of my sexuality would not be safe or welcomed there.
I tell these stories because they are all part of an emerging pattern in my life. Breadcrumbs that I can see have led me to the point of being able to look at myself and see what others have seen, that I have the capacity to be a spiritual leader, or rather someone who gathers others in spiritual ways. I think back to those aptitude tests they give you in high school to help determine which careers you might be suited towards. My top result on that test? Minister or Pastor, followed by social worker. I shrugged off the pastor suggestion, with a simple, “I’m Catholic, so that’s not for me.” and thought nothing of it for years.
The Feminine Genius
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In the Catholic church there is something called the “feminine genius”. This complementarian concept was created and articulated by men as a means of trying to quantify, qualify and control the female essence or energy. No women were consulted by Pope John Paul II during his writing of this. Yet, due to his position as leader of the church, this teaching becomes something that women are instructed in, and measured by.
The hallmark of the “feminine genius” is that there are certain things about the feminine essence that bear unique spiritual gifts. Primarily this is understood through the fact that women are mothers, while men cannot gestate, give birth, or nourish a baby with their body. This biological fact becomes, in the estimation of some men, the most significant and important thing about women. Although this is a form of essentialism, it is not purely that, because it has a spiritual component as well.
Spiritual Motherhood is the idea that all women, whether physical mothers or not, are equipped and in fact expected to be mothers. The story goes something like this; because women’s bodies create and nourish life, women are better at nurturing and caring for others than men are. Women’s essence or energy is one of self-giving, care-taking, and nurturing. However, this “genius” is, surprise surprise, primarily directed at the service of others, especially men – fathers, husbands and sons, or the church and her priests, bishops, etc. It’s also, on a fundamental level, not true in any measurable way. To the extent that women may appear to be better at those things is perhaps just as much if not more a product of being told from a young age that we are, and being expected to be. How much is innate and how much internalized it’s hard to know for sure.
The thing about the “feminine genius” that makes it so problematic is that it does not exist as an end in itself, as something that makes women powerful, unique and complete. It exists in this understanding as something to be used up and given away, expecting nothing in return. It is, in effect, another form of “women’s work” – either in the physical sense as women and mothers in the home, or in the spiritual sense of emotional labor which is taken on, with little encouragement of boundaries or authentic self-care to avoid total burn-out. In fact, women who do experience burn-out are often chastised for not taking time for self-care, because their families need them. Women are never allowed to be whole unto themselves.
The Real Feminine Genius
After years of attempting to make it fit, of trying to find a place for my spiritual energy within the confines of the “feminine genius”, I finally figured out why I couldn’t. Because it didn’t exist for me. It wasn’t created for me. It was not mine, and my magic was desperately trying to protect me from its toxicity.
There are seeds of truth in the “feminine genius”, but they are not seeds planted by women and blossomed from our sweat, our blood, our fluids nurturing its organic power. No, these seeds are choked and stunted from their full power by men who know only too well just how powerful women in their entirety can be.
The ultimate expression of divinity on earth is motherhood. It is the truest way that humanity participates in creation. There’s no doubt about that. Long before Christianity existed, motherhood was the original spiritual symbol of the cosmos, both the macro and the micro. Great Mother creates all that is; your mother creates you, or as my grandma liked to say about my mom, “I made her from scratch.”
Again drawing from the work of Karyn Crisis, in her new book Italian Magic: Secret Lives of Women, she describes how this incredibly powerful magic that women possess by our very identity as female has been undermined and stripped, becoming something only valuable in so far as it serves the patriarchal structures built atop ancient egalitarianism.
“Motherhood is the lineage that Christianity has remodeled in the masculine father-son form. And yet, the masculine concept of motherhood is synthetic; it doesn’t exist in nature. Therefore, motherhood is also the ultimate threat to all big religions and paganisms which espouse male gods as the generators of life … because in order to convince people to turn away from the Great Mother and instead believe in a male god as the Great Father of all, they would have to be convinced to deny nature and therefore deny the sacred feminine; to deny the miracles of the womb, the umbilical cord, the placenta; the breast milk, and vaginal fluid, and menstrual blood. In fact, the only way to convince people to deny nature is to make people believe that nature is in some way evil, something to be feared and even hated.”
The nail in the coffin for Divine Feminine worship was this divorcing of the mind and body, of the person from nature. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes of this hierarchical dualism, saying, “Within a system of dualism, both women and the natural world are separated from the men they bring forth and sustain. Both are assigned instrumental value, with little or no intrinsic worth apart from their potential to serve the needs and desires of men.”
Dualism is the hallmark of Christianity, despite Jesus of the Gospels being anything but dualistic and roundly condemning the splitting off of body and soul, matter and spirit. However far removed from Jesus himself, dualism has served an excellent tool of the patriarchy and in particular religious institutions and theologies. Again from Johnson, “Dualism allows a man to split off the dark side from his essential self, to take his mortality and dependence and project it upon the body, nature, women, the poor, which he can then attempt to conquer and control.”
Within this framework, its no wonder that the “feminine genius” rankled and chafed against my spirt and those of others who have expressed similar frustrations. In theory and on its face, it seems like a good thing, an affirmation of what’s unique about women. However, in our deep Knowing, it’s just not right. It’s not for us, or rather its for us in the same way that a kindly grandfather pats his ribboned granddaughter on the head before sending her out of the room so the grownups can talk. It’s patriarchy and misogyny wrapped in a pretty church shaped bow.
Healing happens when women realize that the “feminine genius” cannot be defined by men. It can’t be quantified, qualified, or controlled. It simply is. Within each woman, both those born women and those who identify as such, there lies a real feminine magic. It is the essence of the Divine Feminine within us, and it is powerful beyond what men can imagine. The beauty and power, the potential of this energy is for us. It exists as an end in itself to bring us to wholeness and healing. Our work is to peel away the layers of shame and internalized distrust of our own femaleness, in order to revive that severed connection.
In a subsequent post, I’ll explore how reclaiming the concept of “feminine genius” from the hands of patriarchal religion serves as a tool for reviving our severed connection to the Divine Feminine and all that is within us, that is for us. Until then, rest in Her power.