2.19.2015

(wo)man fully alive

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I woke early this morning to trod through the remains of yesterday's snowfall and follow the few others across the quad and into the dark space of Duke Chapel. I received ashes on my forehead and was told, rather abruptly, "Repent." It is, of course, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of another season of Lent, these forty days of returning, confession, prayer, reflection and obedience.

Many would also add silence to that list, and appropriately so. From Jesus to the early desert mothers and fathers and to contemporary monastic practice, silence remains a significant spiritual discipline in the life of the Church. I have myself in the past practiced a Lenten discipline of setting aside time in complete silence, allowing space for the presence of God to be made manifest, a presence that goes beyond the limitations of language and words, that requires our stillness and attention.

But this year, I am doing the opposite: I am setting out to practice a discipline of speech. Of voice. That is, of my own voice. A strange Lenten discipline, I admit, and one that I am still figuring out.

The nudges for such a discipline have been a long time coming. I am female who grew up in a particular culture that grooms women to be quiet and gentle and submissive in the name of Biblical womanhood. I believe in these qualities as Christian virtues, certainly—but I reject them as a prescription for feminine virtue, or for what it means to be a Christian woman, when in Christ there is neither male nor female.

In her seminal article, "The Human Situation: A Feminine Perspective," theologian Valerie Saiving argues that while the traditional Christian belief that the root of all sin is pride or self-assertion may apply to many men, it is much less likely to apply to women. For many women, Saiving argues, the primary sin more often tends to be that of the negation of self, or a failing to realize her full self-identity. I know that sin all too well.

Irenaeus reminds us that the glory of God is man—and woman—fully alive. Yet too often, in the name of quietness and gentleness and virtue, many women, myself included, have negated their God-given desires, dressed in insecurity, allowed others to speak while they remained silent, and strangled impulses of self-realization because, you know, it is a sin to assert yourself or to be in tune with your desires. Whether it is self-embraced or culturally nurtured (the answer is both), I have found this to be true of my own experience, and it is also an experience repeated in many women I know.

All too often, the guilt is put on us. "Talk louder! Have more opinions! Speak more confidently! Be more argumentative!" I have especially heard these words in the realm of academia, sometimes directly spoken, and very often implied. I find there is an expectation of necessary change without acknowledging the root problems of the issue, or calling on the others—often, not always, men—to likewise adjust their behaviors and habits. Being a quiet female in the historically male-dominated discipline of theology can be hard work on a day-to-day basis, but I want to claim that it does not make me any less of a theologian.

I am learning what it means to speak, to have a voice, an opinion, to figure out who I am and who God made me to be, to know what I desire and to acknowledge some of those desires as good, as the desires God placed within me to make me who I am, to call me forth to more than who I am now. I am learning to use some phrases less, phrases like, maybe, or I think, or this is just my opinion, but. Self-change is slow, and this issue is complicated and nuanced. It requires me to speak up more often, and it requires others to create the space for me to speak. It requires changes in seemingly minuscule ways, like bodily posture and tone of voice. It requires the disciplined awareness and effort of a whole community. It requires both patience and impatience.

So this Lent I am speaking. I do not know exactly what that means yet. I will learn more, I pray. I will reach Easter with a few more opinions, perhaps. Maybe I will speak up more in class. I want this to be a season of filling the silences, not with cockiness or rambling, but with the grace, revelation, and truth we find in its fullness in our risen Lord.

I know this is not true of everyone's, or even every woman's, experience. As Amy Laura Hall writes, "Not everyone is in the same place. People are sinful in original ways. This certainly is an aspect of what the doctrine of 'original sin' means. And so, to meet Jesus in grace during Lent will mean different practices for different people." So my question is this—for those who lack access to speech, should we really keep telling them to practice silence? No, I think not. The job of our community, as one of my professors said, is to make sure everyone has access to silence, and everyone has access to speech. 

So here is to a Lent of getting involved with God, not through waiting silently (this time), but through wrestling, speaking, claiming, arguing, praising, and praying.

[holga, 35mm film, 2013]
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