Pregnant, yet deep within I knew I couldn’t give this baby life. The decision was made to abort and back then, over 30 years ago, I was unaware of how this experience would influence my spiritual development.
Now in my 60’s I can see how it contributed to the meaning and purpose of my life, an experience that helped me develop compassion for myself and others, and offer a timid act of resistance to the relentless patriarchy of my religious tradition.
Circumstances meant I flew to Sydney for the abortion. Should have been straightforward but mistakes were made and my life was in jeopardy because of an unidentified bleed. A Kiwi nurse held my hand as I was packed full of dressings and hooked up to a continuous blood supply. The next day she went with me to theatre where the internal damage was found and repaired, just in time. How much her connectedness with me mattered.
I remember the way she looked deep into my soul during those days of despair. It was as though God took on female form with compassion, acceptance and love writ large on a nurse's face and in her ritual, nurturing actions. All done within sight and sound of the patient who told her visitors in self-righteous tones, loud enough for me to hear, about ‘the abortion over there gone wrong’.
Soon I was back home in a New Zealand church attending a baby’s funeral. I cried incessantly, deep wracking sobs. Couldn’t stop and didn’t want to even though I was piggy backing on someone else’s grief and funeral rites. Where was the rite for the remains of the child I had aborted and for the sustenance of my soul? Who decided what was sacramental, or not?
20 years on whilst training to be an Anglican priest, I found myself reliving significant life experiences, including the abortion, and beginning to write Godde instead of God. It was code for the feminine aspect of God, the tiniest act of resistance to the avalanche of male dominated thought about what we might mean by God. Thank Godde for feminist theologians who fuelled my growing discontent.
My life experience as a woman, a priest and now working to integrate spiritual care in a district health board shows me that the stories we live by matter. Furthermore, the stories of that which we hold as sacred, the inspiration to live within the existential nothingness of the void, are mighty stories that carry unspoken layers about who we are and what we might become. They work best within rituals that ground us in the uncertainty of life and offer inspiration, especially in dark times. Imagine what it might be like if there were more Godde stories to help us do this.
I suspect a form of religious fundamentalism drives abortion protesters and stops New Zealand politicians from addressing our outdated abortion laws. Unfortunately, as Marist priest and social anthropologist Dr Gerald Arbuckle says in his book Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, fundamentalism is an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change and fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. This skews conversation.
Conversations about how we understand life, its beginnings, endings and the messy bits in between are an evolving journey for all communities. Our abortions matter in these conversations because they are so foundational in the mighty stories of our lives. They are excruciating moments that deserve the grounding of creative and compassionate rituals, not the destructive gauntlet of fundamentalist protest.
Fortunately for our children there is a slowly building movement around Godde stories. Check out The Girl God to be mightily inspired and see the growing range of books. The image for this story is the cover of the first Girl God book by Trista Hendren
Stop! Just stop! The voice in my head was shouting whilst I walked silently towards the speeding traffic with my hand up. There was no fear, only adrenaline. Thankfully they did stop.
Two minutes before I'd been driving home along State Highway 2, happily reviewing my glorious weekend in Napier, when a grey ball of fluff rolled out from under the car in front. Hit and run of a kitten. Does hit and run matter if the victim's not human? It certainly mattered to the kitten.
I pulled over and as I got out of my car, another motor monster headed straight for her and wham. Her tiny body rolled. Surely she's dead I thought. Please, let her be dead. Nothing can survive this. But no, a small head lifted, which was when my Cat Woman craziness got into full throttle.
Ray, a good country bloke stopped his truck. Together, we somehow got her off the road without being run over ourselves. And here was this remarkable little miracle cat that was so alive and staring at me with big, trusting eyes. She nestled in. I swear I can't tell the difference between the pleading of this animal and the pleading of a human in pain. Can you?
Within 30 minutes Miss Miracle was being checked over by Mary at the Waipukurau vet clinic, snuggled in a soft blanket, room service on hand and pain relief on board. We don't know yet if she has internal injuries that may claim her life or if there is a family out looking for her right now. But for now she's safe.
Miss Miracle, a sentient being in trouble, demanded compassionate action of me today and fortunately I was able to act. It was irrelevant that she is a cat and not a human, but I realised in those moments facing oncoming traffic that not everyone thinks like that.
All of them are dead. The bones of Jesus buried deep in Palestine and Kiwi soldiers in Turkey. Although we post-moderns might like to believe we don’t venerate relics, there’s an annual resurrection attempt every Easter and Anzac Day. Two festivals that usually jostle for space in New Zealand but this year have collided head-on.
Christianity now being passé for Kiwis, Jesus is out and soldier worship in. A Colmar Brunton poll this week found honouring our servicemen is more personally significant than Easter for 51 per cent of New Zealanders, compared to 11 per cent for whom Easter is the more significant of the two.
An old reading of the Easter story has Jesus as an innocent lamb being sacrificed to appease an angry god. Given that all communities have a tragic tendency to grasp at sacrificial lambs it’s not surprising that we Kiwis have plugged the gap left in worship rituals by turning dead soldiers into heroic saviours.
In mythological terms this means they act as gods who fight monsters to save us from being overwhelmed. They may then share the spoils of war, which in this case are enticingly called the freedoms we enjoy today. And if you’re not convinced that Anzac Day bears the hallmarks of fundamentalist religious belief, try questioning anything about the state’s most holy day and feel the vitriolic reaction.
Yet there’s nothing holy about these execution stories. Both Jesus and the soldiers at Gallipoli were killed by powerful regimes that wanted complete domination. They used whatever was at their disposal to get it and anyone who got in the way was mincemeat, irrelevant cannon fodder, only the means to justify an end.
The Jesus stories sketch out a very different worldview where we treat others, even our enemies, as we wish to be treated ourselves. The conscientious objectors tortured during World War I because they wouldn’t play the war game had similar views, although expressed differently. And the soldiers who staggered back from war knew that there were no enemies, only unbearable suffering that knew no national boundaries.
The tragedy with Anzac Day and Easter is that we have been sucked into the idea that someone else has to die so that we can live better lives. Jesus would have been horrified at that notion. I imagine the soldiers sobbing in the trenches before forced over the top could also see the stupidity of the concept just before they died.
Turning these people into gods and saviours is to devalue their fragile humanity, sidestepping our responsibility to challenge the systems of violence that are subtly threaded through our society and leave us open to destruction.
Only trouble is challenging the status quo takes a hell of a lot more energy than a dawn parade and looking solemn once a year. It can even get you killed.
Originally published on spiritedcrone.com 24 April 2011 and in Otago Daily Times 27th April 2011 as Honouring sacrifice sidesteps real challenge and on Ekklesia as Easter and ANZAC: Worshipping the gods of war
The conversation had rippled and sparkled. My doctor friend and I juggled theological ideas as they tumbled out into the space between us. But as he got up to leave my heart sank. ‘Oh no’, I thought, ‘after all that he’s going to say he’ll pray for me.’
I’m ultra sensitive, you could say allergic to people praying for me. It’s the result of growing up in an environment where prayer was a subtle form of control, a language game that socialised required theological ideas into an unquestioned group think. Everything was prayed about, loudly. At church it was the men, their hands heavy with assumed authority pressing on our heads or shoulders whilst instructing God who, it has to be said, remained quite unresponsive, although claims of miraculous success were frequent.
This stage of faith, where God appears like Father Christmas or Big Brother is important to grow out of but getting past it is uncomfortable work, says James Fowler author of Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and The Quest for Meaning. Even religious institutions find it hard to move past what Fowler called the synthetic-conventional stage that has a strong reliance on conforming to authority. Mind you there’s money in keeping people stuck there. Tele-evangelists make millions out of that fear filled environment where God watches like a vengeful, bullying superior.
However, ‘religion does not have a monopoly on faith,’ says Krista Tippett the On Being radio show host. She echoes Fowler who found from interviewing nearly six hundred people that faith is not necessarily religious but is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life. That resonates for me as a spiritual care practitioner working to embed spirituality into the healthcare system rather than remaining, in New Zealand, as a somewhat irrelevant religious add-on. This is not because people don’t think about the godstuff in its broadest sense but because our community conversation has, on the whole, been stuck back at the big brother stage.
In my lifetime the only stimulating marketplace theological debates, which is where they need to be, were during the heresy trial of Lloyd Geering in the 1960’s and then more latterly over St Matthew in the City’s wonderfully provocative billboards. Both of those experiences were uncomfortable for the institutional church and so they should have been. For how can any of us grow past basic understandings of reality to a place where the ground of being matters more than literalism, without significant dislocation for the organisations charged with helping us explore.
My friend stumbled over his words. ‘I don’t even know what praying for someone means anymore.’ Our eyes twinkled in unison as we laughed. ‘But,’ he stuttered, ‘what I really mean is that I’m standing with you.’ Powerful.
On his way out he passed the poster I’d made highlighting the words of philosopher Simone Weil, ‘prayer … is absolutely unmixed attention’. My friend had made the effort to be with me in a time of struggle, to make me the focus of his attention. It was enough, more than enough. It was life giving.
This unmixed attention is the lifeblood of professional spiritual care and the business of all of us in the health system because it’s what people desperately need when they are suffering.
Did you ever have a first love that you couldn’t leave behind? Whatever new friends you made, you just wanted that connection so much, even though it was hard to figure out what it was all about, exactly? Theo and me are like that.
We formally got together in January of 2000. I’d travelled 1200 kilometres from Christchurch to St John’s Theological College and the University of Auckland. It was pretty much love at first lecture, a liberating experience for someone who’d grown up within a strait-laced bible believing Baptist congregation. I hadn’t stayed in that environment but our earliest experiences become embedded so it’s hard to deconstruct them on your own.
Studying theology in an academic setting was like being in a nuclear blast. That entire literalistic burden was torn apart with intense light, colour and sound. Awareness dawned with the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t unknow new understandings. Some call it losing faith by degrees. I call it liberation.
In a few days I’m going back. This time it’s half the distance and instead of three years, I’ll be at St John’s for a week’s intensive on a post-graduate chaplaincy programme with the University of Otago. Nevertheless, my friend, a retired Anglican priest of 40 or so years is concerned about the manipulation of theology by the church. He wonders if I’m returning like a wounded victim to the place of pain.
He’s right to be concerned but it wasn’t theology that hurt. Theo has always inspired, energised and delighted me, drawing me on into the passionate dance of ideas like any intense love has the capacity to do. However, when a religion or church decides that there are particular ways to understand Theo and shuts down alternative ways of being in relationship, hurt can happen. The unthinking application of dogma and doctrine can be like domestic violence when people are locked into a repetitive cycle of pain.
After 14 years as an Anglican priest in chaplaincy, struggling theologically with the church hierarchy had taken its toll. I’d decided to leave Theo and pick up study in the therapeutic world. University place offered, some funding secured and yet I felt strangely empty, as though I was in some casual relationship that would go nowhere.
At the same time I’d been reviewing a book about the trinity for a Catholic magazine. I only had 400 words, so to make every last one of them count I had to immerse myself in the text. Dangerous. There was Theo, leaning back, smokin' hot provocative beyond any and all health warnings, and smiling, just smiling. ‘You still love me, don’t ya?’
Because I spend my working life with sick, vulnerable people who are often facing the grim realities of existence, I’m always conscious of the importance of giving value to that which brings life. By that I mean paying attention to wise choices about what will help make meaning in my life and consequently give me the ability to contribute richly into the lives of others. Being hooked up with Theo does that for me, so I’m going back, not to repeat the past but so that we can be creative about the future.
Image: Painting Mary Daly by Angela Yarber
I’ve chosen this image because of the sheer delight it encompasses, similar to the joy I felt when first reading Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. Hoping this revised theological journey of mine be as trouble making as the first.
Exploring spirituality one word at a time.