International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8 around the world. I was honored to be invited to participate this morning, alongside my wife Lauri and daughter Grace, in a service honoring the day at Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church here in Cincinnati. The reflection below, which I shared during the gathering, was adapted from Hope Sings, So Beautiful, Chapter 7. The service, much of it led by young girls and women leaders in the community, was bold, courageous and deeply moving to me — a living example of Pope Francis’s call “to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word.”
The Images We Live By
At the center of Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, is a matronly black wisdom figure named August Boatwright, and her sisters May and June Boatwright. Set in civil rights era, 1964, in the backwater town of Tiburon, South Carolina, the Boatwrights live in a bright pink house where they raise bees to produce honey, and where every week, they host a kind of “house church” in their living room, where folks gather to tell stories, dance, and pray. August serves as a sort of priest for the community, its repository of memory, healing and hope, while June, fiercely defiant June, plays the cello, and May, poor sweet May, who cannot reconcile with the world’s cruelty and sadness, dances her prayers to June’s music and places them on slips of paper in the wailing wall she has built, stone by stone, in the back yard.
At the center of this unorthodox house church is the figure of the Black Madonna, a.k.a., “Our Lady of Chains,” who holds forth in the Boatwright’s living room in the form of a striking wooden statue, the figurehead from the bow of an ancient ship, of an African woman looking toward the horizon with raised fist in the air.
Suddenly into their world and onto their doorstep comes Lily, a young white girl just at the edge of puberty, whose spirit is overshadowed by an abusive father and crippling guilt associated with the death of her mother. Lily does not know what to make of this strange house church, but she longs to touch the heart of the Black Madonna, sensing that, maybe, by touching her heart, the terrible pain and sense of unworthiness gripping her own heart might finally be released.
In a quiet scene early in the novel, August explains to Lily why she and her friends, who call themselves the Daughters of Mary, pray to the Black Madonna. “I wish you could have seen the Daughters of Mary the first time they laid eyes on [the Black Madonna],” says August. “You know why? Because when they looked at her, it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what’s divine can come in dark skin. You see, everybody needs a God who looks like them, Lily.”
What the Black Madonna does for the Daughters of Mary, it seems, is what no white or male image of God could do: she redeems their suffering from within by reflecting back to them in bodily form their own inherent dignity, strength, and beauty. She does not stereotype, she sees, and somehow in seeing her see you, you become visible to yourself.
Blackness is made beautiful, as in the opening lines of the Song of Songs: I am black and beautiful, / O daughters of Jerusalem,/like the tents of Kedar,/ like the curtains of Solomon (1:5). Girlness is made powerful, a reflection of the very image of God. Think about it: in the racially explosive and patriarchal culture of the deep South, this is no small gift. For the women in the story (and a few of the men too) the Black Madonna is a palpably healing and empowering Presence because she awakens and safeguards that image of the divine who hides and wants to shine forth in every person, yet is so much threatened and stamped out by dehumanizing forces in the culture.
It is the same grace, of course, that August herself incarnates for the young Lily. Safe in the womb of August’s unexpected love for her, an outsider, a white girl, Lily’s single prayer is answered: “Mother forgive. Please forgive.” In the circle of this community, bound together by a Presence both within and beyond them all, Lily’s spirit is gifted with room enough to heal, to flower forth bodily into womanhood.
“When you’re unsure of yourself,” says August to Lily, “when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand?” Such words are no less than a priestly anointing for Lily, a reminder of Lily’s dwelling place in God’s heart from the very beginning.
I’ve often wondered, as a teacher and father of four children, and with two girls about Lily’s age: where might our children today be gifted and nurtured with such an elemental theological truth about themselves, where God’s mercy and strength is sacramentalized in images, stories, and practices that “look like them”? If not in our church communities, where? Indeed The Secret Life of Bees is an almost mythic protest against a whole civilization—and implicitly a patriarchal church—that seems determined to obscure this revolutionary good news about our shared life together, our divine dignity, in God. By convincing us that we are somehow less than the good news our faith proclaims we are, the culture reduces us all, male and female alike, to “doubt and small living.”
Some may object that The Secret Life of Bees is merely a fiction, a construction of Sue Monk Kid’s imagination, if not her thinly veiled political agenda. But if that is the case, then so must it also be with the poetry of the Bible, where the feminine face of God hides everywhere. From the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom to the wisdom sayings of Jesus and much of the earliest christological hymns of the New Testament, the divine feminine haunts the Bible itself, even where she has largely been marginalized and outcast from institutional Judaism and Western Christianity. We call her—when we think to remember her at all—Wisdom, Sophia, Hokmah, the divine Shekinah. For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness. . . And passing into holy souls from age to age, she produces friends of God and prophets. (Wis 7:26)
Like August Boatright, like Lily Owens, each of us is called and gifted to become God’s translucence in the world. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph her companion; like Mary Magdalene, witness to the crucifixion and resurrection, Apostle to the Apostles, but demoted and maligned down through the ages, we too are called to be attuned to the Holy Spirit, and invited to say yes. Wisdom-Sophia is God’s love and mercy made real in us, in flesh and blood, as it was in Jesus. Father and Mother, Sister and Brother, in our simplest acts of love we share in the very life of God. She dances and plays in the lives of all the prophets and saints. In truth, as Thomas Merton writes in one of his many hymns to Holy Wisdom, her memory “beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.” (1)
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis has written: “We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty.” (2) “How did we not see,” asks Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, “that women and men are equally icons, witnesses, vessels of Christ for the world?” (3)
Surely the time has long past for us to break free from the habitual repetition of “old words for God, safe words for God, lazy words for God.” (4) For our sake and for our children’s, let us not be afraid to reclaim an image and memory of the divine that is both wordlessly ancient, written into the fabric of our very being, and at once daringly new, which speaks of God’s wholeness, of God’s freedom to love through all the created world, in the splendor of Earth herself, and through human beings of every gender, race and culture.
And may we teach our children to be bold enough never to give in to doubt and small living. (5)
1. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 297.
2. Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, no. 167.
3. Cf. Andrew Greeley: “The sacramental imagination, when working properly, apparently does sense a correlation between a lurking God and equality of women. It does perceive, however dimly, that a woman’s body is as much a sacrament of God’s love as a man’s body.” From “The Mother Love of God,” in The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), 89-103, at 103
4. Rowan Williams, Archbishop Emeritus of Canterbury, describing the prophetic vocation of the church. A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (Fons Vitae, 2011), 50. Also Christopher Pramuk, At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical, 2015).
5. Peter Gabriel’s “Shaking the Tree,” live, with the resplendent Paula Cole, a rousing celebration of global women spirit rising.