Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Memoir Musings Part One: Wilderness

Today the Christian Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation. In the biblical story a young girl Mary had a vision of the angel Gabriel and heard in her heart an invitation, an announcement, a deal: conceive, bear and nurture a son named Jesus. In return for her female gifts her biology and her commitment to a hard journey (Jesus wasn’t an easy son you know,) God promised blessings for Mary and for her son. Mary said yes.

Today is also the twenty-first anniversary of my ordination as an Episcopal priest in the Church of God. It’s Mary’s day and my day too, a good time to begin to tell you how my own call to say yes to God’s invitation to me.
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I’ve been writing all my life, most recently at length about my spiritual journey, trek really, from child to adult, girl to woman, and edging into old woman, with most of the focus on my middle years—thirty-five to fifty-five roughly.

What, I pondered, would be the right word to describe what it’s like to be moving, sometimes without consent, toward maturity? Mind, body and soul are all involved—not one holds back, not one dominates. Growth spurt seems too mild. Mid-life crisis lacks luster, too psychological. Transition is shopworn. And paradigm shift is for things much bigger than me. Liminality works but is close to spiritual clichĂ©.

Into my mind popped wilderness and a quote: “The wilderness is where the child learns to love the mother more than the milk.”

Wilderness? A bit tired among the biblically literate but when something pops in like that I don’t resist much. Wilderness catches the ambience of a mapless pilgrimage, going nowhere and everywhere. Lost.

To learn to love the mother more than the milk? At a literal level, I don’t resonate with this wisdom. My mother didn’t nurse me or my sisters, thought is was “disgusting,” not part of her class or day. But of course milk and mother are metaphor for what life is like in wilderness time.

My wilderness was wild but it wasn’t hot or dry like a desert. There was plenty of water although nothing slaked my thirst. It wasn’t uninhabited, not bleak wasteland but teeming with people, places and things, forces driving me from within and whipping me from without. Tumbleweed.

I don’t know how I got into my wilderness or exactly how I got out. I careened through it tethered by one slender thread: I wanted with all my heart to be ordained a priest and celebrate the Holy Eucharist. I kept trying to persuade the Episcopal church, then (1970’s and 80’s) in its own wilderness of change—shifting words, hymn tunes, genders, and all manner of traditions.

My campaign began officially in 1977 in the diocese of Connecticut. I with five other women—the very first female aspirants—applied to enter the ordination process. We were “legal” now, voted so in 1976 by the General Convention, our legislative body. Fifteen women pioneers paved the way. In 1974 and 1975 they were been ordained priests outside of canonical authority. Roman Catholic women are doing the same now. (Such efforts remind me of the valiant and herculean way grass makes its way up through concrete taking the tiniest cracks as invitation.)

But since we Episcopal women had been accepted by vote, we thought we had an open door. We were thrilled, triumphant, and naive about the difference between the vote counts of our “congressional” delegates and the more invisible slow heartbeat of church officialdom back home. The numbers didn’t tally.

Before I applied for ordination I had entered and was lost in my personal wilderness, trying to break free from societal roles and rules for women, but this ecclesiastical wilderness was vast, harsh and sometimes toxic. I was rejected twice by “Goliath” after which I descended into the hell of my one million three hundred thousand internal demons—echoes of parental demons now mine— all proclaiming me inadequate.

I kept on–no promise, no blessings, no mother, no milk— driven by my soul’s adrenalin.