A Song Over the Land: Finding Our Prophetic Voice
(A compilation of reflections offered by Agape co-founder, Suzanne Belote Shanley during the weekend Lenten Zoom Retreat sponsored by Mary’s House co-founders, Jim and Shelley Douglas, March 19-21.)
The opening theme of this weekend’s retreat, “The Earth is Weeping” defines our collective pilgrimage together, close to 200 of us on this zoom, in what poet Denise Levertov defines as “journey on this jagged terrain of resistance and light.”
In these days of pandemic and corona virus, I invite us to reflect, even if we are compelled to do so virtually, on the Earth and its mystical pull at Agape.
The community is in the town of Hardwick, MA, on a luminous and poetic 34 acres of Nipmuc Indigenous land which we acknowledge, as occupiers, is not rightfully ours.
Throughout the retreat, we will refer to the Agape legacy book, “Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community” particularly in this session using the chapter entitled: “Song Over the Earth.”
The beating heart of the earth is alive in every prayer circle and bonfire on this Nipmuc land where we welcomed Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe in 2018. Silent, austere, firm, Chief Arvol possesses the iconic face of a Great Soul, a Mahatma. I remember thinking then: This is Jesus, walking here at Agape.
Arvol presided over the sacred fire lit by the many tribes that came to Agape to honor him. In response, I wrote a poem, “Chief Arvol at the Sacred Fire: 4:30 am” (Loving Life on the Margins, p.216) in which I recall walking with Chief Arvol “as if in a dream/flashlights guiding us…/transfixed…fire and breath/…love rising, /tobacco smoldering…/Chief Arvol speaks, intoning, keening/a Lakota prayer…/Agape blessed by the nineteenth keeper of The White Buffalo Calf Pipe.”
Chief Arvol drew our attention to the “weeping earth” beginning humbly, inauspiciously with: “People of the first nations are weeping with the crushing and the shattering of their lands, their sacred burial sites.” He commissioned us to become protectors of earth, to tend to the tears of Our Mother, violated by the Black Snake, or the Dakota Access pipeline, ravaging their land. (President Biden revoked the permit for the pipeline his first day in office).
With deep respect, Chief Arvol honored native women resisters saying: “When they were plowing through the gravesites, it was the women who ran ahead to stop the plows.”
So today, as we open this retreat co-sponsored with our Catholic Worker family at Mary’s House in Alabama, we will focus on the theme of “Finding Our Prophetic Voice” by capturing Chief Arvol’s prophecy as our own: “Someday you will create that which you cannot control.”
Chief Arvol praised Indigenous youth resisters, or akicita, the “special protectors of the people” who initiated the Standing Rock camp and participated in a collective stand-off which one writer describes as “colonialism meets climate change.” Today, as we begin this retreat, we carry these Native American prophecies in our very being as we attempt to find our prophetic voices as occupiers.
Finding Our Prophetic Voice
Scripture provides us the sacred words, like “reduced” (Is 14:2) and “brought low” (Sam: 2:7) which locate what many of us have felt years of Trump and Covid 19. Such denigration cries out for the voices of prophets. So, we gather here tonight from various parts of the county to respond to a call, to save our planet, to be countersigns to the racism and white supremacy that afflict us, to resist and to pray, to invoke the nonviolent Jesus as Chief Arvol embraced the call to nonviolence and issued a mantra: “Standing Rock is Everywhere.”
To be “called” is derived from the Hebrew word Nabi. Among our Catholic prophets, Dorothy Day spoke of “keeping the segments of the chain of being connected.” So tonight we become links in a “chain of connection” during covid devastation as we intersect with Pax Christi, Just Faith, Catholic Workers, The Atlantic Life Community, the Plowshare network and many other nonviolent activists and individuals.
Many of you are prophetic allies, “called” to live “on the margins” or, in the words of Pope Francis, to the “periphery” a risk-taking edge where we can become “keepers of the flame of resistance.”
Brayton and I lit our flame, felt the call and responded when we met Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth Mc Alister in 1978 at Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Rowe, MA. The topic was community and resistance, and we were ready.
Philip Berrigan as the Prophet’s Prophet
In his comprehensive study of prophecy in Scripture, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, gave a definitional construct to the word “prophet,” as an “assaulter of the mind.” Phil renounced in words and actions, what Walter Bruggeman in the book, “The Poetic Imagination” refers to as the “idolatrous system of language of the bomb, of empire.”
Liz and Phil together, solidified and energized, Christ-centered consciousness, rooted in Jeremiah’s cry of anguish for the suffering of the world torn by war. Brayton and I, as did many of you, began the prophet’s journey with The Atlantic Life Community, combining prayer, study and civil disobedience and public witness, all stemming from and leading back to where we are tonight, building community.
Phil’s words were searing as he laid out the prophetic plan: “Tear the veil from the thunderous national silence around the bomb and war.” Yet, the bomb and war were not all he felt called to condemn. “No killing; no exceptions.” Strong, often misunderstood words.
Phil once described how peacemakers are to comport themselves: “Do your homework; build nonviolent community resisting evil; expose nonviolently, respectable murderers.”
Gathered here this weekend on this strange zoomland, we come as “keepers of the flame of resistance,” demonstrating the truth of Abraham Heschel’s words: “Despite the absurd, the world is filled with mystery. The Divine Image cannot be obliterated.”
Over these many years of living in a community of resistance, prayer, sustainability, and education on nonviolence, I have gravitated irrevocably to the Divine image as Feminine as well as masculine.
Lighting the Flame of the Divine Feminine
How do we mean when we invoke The Divine Feminine? How is this feminine conception of God part of our nonviolent lineage? As I wrote in “Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community” both Brayton and I were “drawn to the image of God as the Divine Feminine, that’s God’s heart and ungraspable power is Mother as well as Father. …that the womb-love of God gives birth. …” What is our lineage? Where is our legacy taking root in and with The Divine Feminine?
Through the lens of a Christian feminist perspective, Jesus is the ultimate expression and supporter of the Divine Feminine, a concept firmly rooted in ancient societies. Unlike the white Mariology I had learned in my Catholic school upbringing, through the writing of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sally McFague, Elizabeth Johnson and many other women theologians, I began to see the male-dominated view of religion which permeated my upbringing.
In a ground-breaking book, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (1984), Mollenkott writes: “Clearly, the language of liturgy, prayer, sermon and hymnody ought to tend toward dissolving the patriarchal barriers between self and ‘Other.’ That will be one of the effects of utilizing the biblical images of God as female. …”
Understanding my valued role as a woman in the life of Scripture as well as in my own sphere of existence, led me to see patriarchy, clericalism, militarism, and misogyny as the prevailing constructs of our culture.
In this pursuit, I saw the face of the feminine Divine in that of my friend and mentor, Juanita Nelson whose radiant smile lifts me up each time I see her face in the photo on my desk, now many years after her death. Juanita’s smile is buoyant, radiant, joyful, the face of God.
The Divine Feminine as a concept of Divinity as Mother, is organically rooted in Nature as was Juanita Nelson and her husband Wally, both pacifist war resisters and Civil Rights activists who lived on a few acres of land they called “The Bean Patch,” in a tiny cabin with no electricity.
Selling their produce in the center of Greenfield, MA, they stood in the same town center to protest paying taxes for war and became the grandparents of the war tax resistance movement in the Massachusetts.
Juanita as mentor convinced me that “your life is your action.” Siding with local farming over agri-business, she and Wally disengaged from an economic system that they saw as unequal, oppressive and the cause of intense suffering.
The Discipleship of Equals
In the words of Jeannine Hill-Fletcher of Fordham Theology School: “The Divine Feminine speaks of a discipleship of equals. …no to male-dominated status quo and up to Sophia. Hill- Fletcher speaks of Mother Love as “human centered and rooted in a calculus of concern” for all humans, including men, as well as creatures large and small, animals, and all the created world.
Joan Chittister OSB has for decades been making the important point that Jesus discussed theology with women, telling them that He was the Messiah while also sending women as apostles to the apostles.
That is why Nicole Braithwaite-Hunt and other African American women’s voices are so important tonight because they bring African American consciousness to the reality of the Divine Feminine as multi-racial and diverse. No longer would White Motherhood encompass an expression of The Divine Feminine. Rather, the condescending, patriarchal view of women is replaced, at least by many of us, with an inter-religious, transcendent Divine Feminine captured in the life of Theo Bowman.
Theo Bowman, a woman religious, invoked this counter-cultural revisionism amidst religious institutions as a way out of the rigid, violent and death-dealing past of an all-male God. She captured that prophetic stance, when, in 1989, as a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, she asked a gathering of American Catholic Bishops: “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it?” Her prophetic challenge was even more inspiring as she was in a wheelchair and dying of cancer.
And, of course, it probably did frighten, at least some of the bishops and still does as “fully functioning” might actually mean the ordination of Black and White women to the priesthood. Frightening.
She continued: “I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. …I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility—as a gift to the church.”
Strongly observing how “Black Catholics still feel like second- and third-class citizens of the Holy City,” Bowman became the foundress of the National Black Sisters’ Conference which supports African-American women in Catholic religious institutions.
Divine Feminine Rooted in Jesus and Nonviolence
For me, The Divine Feminine became rooted in nonviolence. Gandhi famously proclaimed: “I learned nonviolence from my wife because of her forgiveness of me.” Although I admire and respect this statement of Gandhi’s conversion, his admission opens the need for men to relearn and reprogram male consciousness so that like Gandhi, they don’t have to offend, ignore or degrade the women in their lives first, and then beg their forgiveness. Gandhi’s praise of his wife, Kasturba, is a humble start, one that involves first, admission of offense, and then reparation and repair. These are the steps we need to take as a country as we undo the legacy of genocide and slavery of Indigenous and Black sisters and brothers.
If human consciousness is earth consciousness, we all can attempt to embody this consciousness by embracing the reality that growth in nonviolence equals growth in the Divine Feminine.
Such growth is cyclical, organic, rooted in nature or in the feminist idea of the “ethic of care.” As we gather this weekend, we may feel the way Dorothy Day often felt, like “an empty cistern.”
Yet, we have the time this weekend, to fill up our empty cisterns as we listen, pray, and embrace the feminist methods of interreligious, nonviolent dialogue. We can dismantle the Master’s House only with love, intimacy, healing, reparations.