"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Friday, March 27, 2015

Father God, Mother God, Lover God

Father God, Mother God, Lover God

Father God has been drummed into our heads aplenty by the patriarchal dogma of Judaism and Western Christianity. Mother God and Lover God are lesser known deities, but they do exist. Mother God stems from a feminist undercurrent rippling within the patriarchal religions: you can find evidence of Her everywhere. I think of my own grandmother and her allegiance to the Blessed Mother; she prayed more to her than Christ himself. My grandmother belonged to the Legion of Mary and attended meetings and prayer groups; she said the Rosary every morning. I can still see her lying on her back in her bed, her lips mouthing the prayers, the beads wrapped around her gnarly fingers. She put herself into a trance every morning, a communion of sorts with the Catholic version of the divine feminine.

Recently I’ve started revising a novel I thought I finished two years ago. It’s a part historical/part contemporary read featuring polygamy in nineteenth century Utah. In my research, I stumbled upon a feminist text that reports an undercurrent of feminism within the oppressive bounds of polygamy. Sister wives were bonded to one another through the Female Relief Society, a society that incorporated feminist ideas, not only in spirituality, but daily life as well. Joseph Smith organized the society himself, under the helm of one Eliza Snow, who wrote poems about a Mother God. The society was modeled after the priesthood in that members could practice sacred acts such as the laying on of hands to heal the sick. The Female Relief Society had its own publication called the Woman’s Exponent where women could voice their frustrations with men. Here is an excerpt from Blanche Beechwood, a.k.a Emmeline B. Wells, the editor:

I know we are taught that Eve was the first to sin. Well, she was simply more progressive than Adam. She did not want to live in the beautiful garden for ever, and be nobody—not able even to make her own aprons.

Here’s another excerpt, showcasing true feminist thought, from an entry titled “An Old Maid’s Protest” addressed to the “Lords of creation,” i.e. men:

I have no doubt but that you will greet this with a cynical smile, as your conceit and vanity are developed to such an extent as to prevent you from accepting it as truth. But such it is. You may call me “Woman’s rights advocate,” “Blue Stocking,” or any other tender epithet; I care not. I am independent and not afraid because I am a woman to express my views on any subject. You may think I am only joking; but I warn you not to test the truth of my remarks by proposing to me, for I have such an utter detestation for the whole sex that it is with the greatest difficult that I can treat the men with common civility. And don’t think I have been crossed in love either, for I haven’t.

The once editor of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline B. Wells, was active in the women’s suffrage movement while still being a proponent of polygamy. She believed that plural marriage afforded a woman personal freedom and independence to exercise her rights because her sister wives helped in the chores and child rearing.

I’m excited about incorporating this research in my novel. I believe it will supply some depth to the chapters that needed a bit more oomph. The research served another purpose for me, though: I realized it was okay to want a divine female counterpart in God. Mormon women both contemporary and historical are/were vocal in their need for a divine being they could relate to. I realized I felt the exact same way and that this was a very natural thing. You didn’t have to reject a patriarchal religion altogether, as I have been doing; you could voice your conflict with it and make necessary adaptations.

While rewriting the novel, I revisited my book of readings by woman mystics to further be inspired (I have a character who is a Mormon mystic). The mystic shows up in every religion; she’s that person who pushes the boundaries of doctrine and is fueled by passion—more than conformity and fear—and sees God not only as a divine parent, but a lover. In my research I’ve encountered the term “coniunctio” defined as the conjugal bond between the soul and God. Catherine L. Albanese, author of “Mormonism and the Male-Female God: An Exploration in Active Mysticism,” describes this bond as “erotic” and “sexual.” I found this idea fascinating, how the mystic yearns to be one with God as a lover yearns to be one with her beloved. Here is evidence of coniunctio in the poems of Mechtild of Magdeburg, a thirteenth century German mystic:

A Song of the Soul:
Lord, You shine into my soul
like the sun glows on gold,
and when I rest in You,
what rich joy I have.
In fact, You clothe Yourself, God,
with my soul.
You are her most intimate piece of clothing against the skin.

God’s Singing Response to the Soul:
God as Lover of the Soul says:
“When I shine, you glow.
When I flow, you grow wet.
When you sigh, you draw My divine heart into you.
When you weep and long for Me, I take you in My arms and
embrace you.
“But when you love, we become one.
And when we two are one,
we can never be separated.
Instead, a joyful sort of waiting
binds us.”

We are tempted to say we know this love through sex with a beloved, a person one loves and wants to join oneself to. But sex can be divisional; we get too focused on bodily sensation and pleasing one another. I feel like I know this grander type of love on an unconscious level; last night I dreamed of an old crush, and in the dream, my crush had a twin who was dating my friend who happened to look like me (Jung would have a field day with this). I remember the euphoria of being held by him; it was not a sexual type of union; it had nothing to do with body desire, and yet he had strong muscles and was regarded as the handsomer twin. I felt like I had achieved something, that there was a struggle to move through and then a reward—his magical love that soothed me and made me feel like all was right. He was a safe-haven of sorts. My “crush” was almost god-like in that way.

I wrote this poem before I had these thoughts about a Mother and Lover God. But it fits. Maybe it was a premonition of sorts:

If I say the world Love
do I mean it?
Judgement and Scrutiny back me
into a corner, where I sit
until I can't stand it anymore.
But with Her, I can run
or sleep in the soft snow.
We will rest in Winter's
Womb--the rabbit, the fox
and us. I feel it-- Elation.
Eleison. A cloud of Yes 
about my ears. Yes! Yes!
The God is singing in the bell
tower. His love child with
every man and woman is born
again and again.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Letter from the Editor of The Compassion Project: Beyond the Dragons of Eden: How Art Makes Us Human

Letter from the Editor

Reading and witnessing works of art can open our minds to our global community in both space and time. They allow us to act as fully functioning humans, not reptiles that want to kill each other.

We are all hard-wired for both selfishness and compassion, for ruthless fighting and enduring love. We all have that ancient reptilian brain embedded in the hypothalamus, designed to implement what scientists call the 4 Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and… sex. When your testosterone and adrenaline are pumping during an argument, you can thank your distant cousin the T-Rex. If you’re born into poverty with few resources, survival becomes paramount, and you’re more vulnerable to the reptilian instincts.

As we moved up the evolutionary ladder, some reptiles evolved into mammals, and the limbic or mammalian brain that developed enabled them to nurture. This wasn’t out of love, per se, but preservation of the species. Unlike reptiles that laid eggs and split, mammals gave birth to their young and had to care for them until their bigger brains matured. They had to feed, protect, and shelter their babies. For humans, it is through the mammalian brain that we learn to put another individual first, that we can exercise our compassionate tendencies.

 The evolution of the neo-cortex or “over-seeing” brain in human beings made it mandatory that an infant be born “prematurely,” that is, before the bigger brain fully matured so that it could fit through the birth canal. Thus, infants were born totally helpless and entirely dependent on their parents. “Parental affection ensured the survival of the species,” writes Karen Armstrong in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Infants now “needed the support, care, and protection not only of their parents but an entire community.” Through evolution, this type of compassion became more entrenched and widespread. It eventually evolved into altruism.

 With the adaptation of the neo-cortex, humans became capable of reasoning, reflection and creativity. We began to seek meaning in our lives. This is where art and science factored in; we began to experiment and explore the world around us. We documented and classified. We expressed our emotions through creations. We realized that art, as well as science, could lead to knowledge. Most importantly, we learned that art and science allowed for us to abolish wrongly preconceived ideas and notions.

 Art establishes understanding and empathy, and it does this with finesse and originality. It employs beauty and sophistication. I think I can speak for most of us when I say I would much rather read a novel that showcases the full range of human emotion than delve into the tenets, theories, and accounts in a textbook.

 Here are some examples of art that promoted large-scale understanding, empathy, and disproved wrongly preconceived ideas:

 ·      Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. This elegantly written autobiography proved to nineteenth century Americans that blacks were not inferior to whites intellectually; they too had fully functioning neo-cortexes.
 ·      The plays A Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen, Trifles by Susan Glaspell and the paintings of Frida Kahlo. These works prove that women are not “dolls” nor do they have trivial inner and outer lives.

 ·      Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. These works portray the imperialistic attitudes and emotional complexity inherent in colonialism. They aim to show that what some deem an “inferior society” is just a different take on being human, and often a more spiritual one.

·      The poetry of Rumi. Poet and translator Coleman Barks says that the “love” in Rumi’s poems is “nakedly exposed and restless like a mountain creek, like sunlight moving around a winter room.” Rumi’s poetry is a portal to mysticism through which Non-Muslims can freely enter and learn that true Islam is not fanatical and hostile, but compassionate, ecstatic and reverent.

When our belief systems are altered through experiencing artistic works, it translates to our behavior and enables us to act compassionately.

At North Shore Community College, a female faculty member claims the poetry of Bruce Weigl helps her relate to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  She writes, “Every time I encountered a veteran, I thought of this Weigl poem, ‘The Snowy Egret.’ It made me approach these students with a respect and gentleness that I didn't think I had in me…it clearly made me treat veterans differently than I expected I would and which my political beliefs on paper would dictate.” 

Tam Martin Fowles, founder of Hope in the Heart, an organization that guides individuals to triumph over adversity and understand their place in the global community, cites the novel Notes from an Exhibition and specifically the character Anthony, a Quaker who “lives his life by a set of values that aroused great empathy and inspiration” in Martin Fowles.  After reading the book, Martin Fowles began to attend Quaker meetings herself, ultimately discovered a faith that suited her, and a community of people that embodied “ an ethos of peace and social action.”

We tend to see art/literature as a means for empathy only, but empathy is only the starting point. Readers can empathize with the plight of characters they love; people can be captivated by works of art for very personal reasons. Yet, when we say art matters, we say it because we have been moved beyond personal illumination to act more compassionately in the world. 

We at The Compassion Project seek to do just that. The fundraiser we are sponsoring this spring will benefit the children of ChildHelp Sierra Leone, a child rights organization that bore the brunt of the Ebola virus—not only physically, but emotionally and financially—this past fall. I have been in contact with director Kaprie Thoronka since August and his heart-wrenching letters of devastation in Sierra Leone have moved me to do what I can to help. Moreover, Africa got the short end of the stick with respect to world aid for a calamity. People weren’t rushing to Africa to lend a hand like they did for Haiti and Japan. I remember scrolling through all of the Indiegogo Ebola campaigns; many of them had no funding at all and remained that way until they closed.

Please read the Call for Submissions on our home page to learn how you can contribute and help foster our community of compassion through creativity. To quote Armstrong again, "We have a duty to get to know one another and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village."

Regards and happy spring,

 Laurette Folk, Editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology