As a teenager I was oblivious that I needed other people to grow as a Catholic Christian. After all, through my own effort I had the world under my control, and I ignored any relationship problems that mentality created. It didn’t take long in my faith development to realize that worldview did not bring peace. In fact, as events unfolded, I had a pervasive awareness of a coping paralysis. While I looked for a distant “sky God” to help me, what I really needed was an embodied divine helper. It would not take me long to discover help was close by in a divine sisterhood of faithful women.
Everyone experiences tough times as they leave the family nest. I remember I was just 20 years old, newly married, lonely, and far away from friends and family when the local garden-club ladies took me under their wing and witnessed to patient growth of both plants and people. Along with the irises they shared, they gave me the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the form of their courage, perseverance, strength, confidence, and kindness.
When I struggled to let go of my self-centered ego in a relationship with a partner with similar traits, I found female soulmates. As I shared stories with women of great tenderness, I could hear myself more clearly, face up to my controlling behavior. When I needed to pull my inner chaos into the light of truth, my “soul sisters” opened up to me as we walked arm in arm. I remember when one mother shared that, of her seven children, the child with Down’s syndrome was the one she was most thankful for. Another woman struggling with intense family conflict shared her gratitude to her women peers for teaching her that anger is a decision; she could now use this knowledge to let go of her inner turmoil. As I heard her wise words, I resolved that I could let go of my own anger.
As the years flew by, I became more mature, but faith in myself was still fragile. When I had my fifth child, I had teenagers who came in at wee hours of the night and were deaf to my advice and guidance. I remember getting discouraged and my close friend reassuring me: “You are a good mother! You are the best! Don’t listen to the dark voices in the night!” This was the spiritual direction and the supportive presence of love I needed in that moment. Not only did my friend’s Christlike presence speak to my loss of feeling loved; she also opened my eyes to see that my teenager was overwhelmed by her own growing pains. My friend’s words and wisdom restored my soul’s compassion for myself and for my child. I stopped asking God “Where are you?” and welcomed divine love into my midst.
Sometimes the Divine Lover comes during lunch with new female acquaintances. At a meeting of a writing group that I attended, the women discussed the insecurities they had about their spiritual writing and their creativity. They encouraged one another with the necessary perseverance of any creative project, the need for multiple drafts that end up transforming both the artist and the art. For me this was true, woman-to-woman divine empowerment.
Our spiritual girlfriends are our midwives of consolation, birthing love, healing, and creativity. Without our Anam Cara, our “soul friends,” we risk become mired in early memories of family members who did not offer the unconditional love that we craved, who may have been too wrapped up in their own struggles to offer the nourishment we needed. We begin to realize that they may have betrayed us due to their own insecurities and fears. As we listen to the struggles of others, we realize there is more to life than self-pity. Instead we come to experience a profound community, a sense of solidarity.
My rich Catholic formation has broadened my appreciation for the many biblical examples of women supporting each other. Women had few rights in the patriarchal culture of the Old Testament. We know they gathered in the red tent during their female monthly cycles. There they shared courage and wisdom to stand up for their children and their tribes, to comfort each other during oppression and violence. The energy and vitality of divine, spiritual love are powerful gifts shared with us, embodied in us. As a woman I claim this profound gift: love is poured out on me; I am then empowered to pour it out on others, as the women in my life have done so beautifully.
In the history of the church women have transformed their communities with as much sacrificial effort as men. Jesus respected wisdom-seeking women. He listened to his mother direct him to his mission at a wedding; he gained insight into women’s lives from the Samaritan woman at the well; he gave Mary Magdalene status as a wisdom seeker; and he found friendship, support, and love with Mary and Martha. After the death of Jesus, the women carried their embodied Christ-presence throughout the world with the other disciples. St. Theresa gave her assurance that “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.”
Over the centuries I count as sisters the heroic women in crisis situations, refugees, women in abusive communities, women whose villages have been burned to the ground, women abandoned without jobs and resources, women who live in places where their girls are abused or mutilated. Many of these women have turned to one another in love to shoulder great misery and inspire hope. These are unsung saints. Hopefully women in more stable circumstances will reach out in solidarity to this sisterhood of struggling girls, and they will build Christ’s kingdom in those desolate places.
What is my takeaway after a lifetime of experiences and encounters with women? I believe now more than ever that encounters with the women in my life have been encounters with Christ. I have seen with my own eyes and heart the relentless tenderness and ferocious protection women have displayed. I think of the time I delivered four bags of food to a needy family, and the woman who received them repacked the food to give two bags away to another needy person. We walk away from such encounters inspired.
I know firsthand that the kingdom comes more fully through the ordinary faithful women in our midst. We are wisdom’s dwelling place; we can lift up young and old alike. In pure joy I have seen women laughing together at the contradictions in life, when the event we fear the most becomes the transformation we have prayed for. Women regularly have the faith to recognize holy surprise when it happens, and they tell the stories with a twinkle in their eyes.
Let us create a joyful ritual where all the veteran wisdom women stand up and be counted: the grandmothers, the big sisters, the mothers, aunts, and all the other women who share divine love with one another. I want to pull the Christ-passion within me and pour it out on other women. I want them to stand up and speak out for what they believe.
Dorothy Yeomans lives with her husband, Peter, in Andover, Connecticut. She is a retired Director of Religious Education in upstate New York, mother of five, and grandmother to eleven. She can be found at the Andover, Connecticut, food pantry and in her perennial garden.