Monday, March 5, 2012

Are You There, Goddess? It's Me....

Last January, while out for a walk one sunny Sunday afternoon, I noticed a phenomenon in the sky that I'd never seen before. Living in Cache Valley, we are in the flight path of jetliners on descent to Salt Lake International airport, so I am accustomed to seeing airplanes flying high overhead, one or two at a time. What I observed that day was a myriad of contrails criss-crossing the sky, and I counted seven actual airplanes in the act of creating their own trails. I was astonished at the sight, and I'm sure I attracted a bit of attention from passing cars as I walked along with my head flung back, taking in the view. It was a sight I'd never seen before that day, and haven't seen since. When I got home, I excitedly told my husband what I had witnessed, and he very casually said, "Yeah, those airplanes are there every day. You can see them today because the atmospheric conditions are just right for the contrails to be visible. It's just cold enough, and clear enough." No big deal! I was still wowed, however, and take a moment on each clear day to look up for evidence of those jetliners winging their way toward some far-off destination. But, I haven't caught another glimpse. The conditions haven't been right.

I've had a similar experience with regards to the church and feminism. I've been a member of the church all of my life, and I've been female all of my life. And, at various stages in my life, I've felt vague discomfort when experiencing patriarchy up close and personal. But, generally, the conditions have not been right for me to really see the male-dominant nature of the church I've called my spiritual home all these years. It was too risky to allow myself to dwell on it when I did feel it. So I put it on a shelf, tucked safely away; out of sight, out of mind. Only not quite.

Consider my bishop at the time I decided to serve a mission. He told me that he wouldn't allow any of his daughters to serve missions, that their mission was to marry and start a family. And that a college education for girls was not only wasteful as they would never need it, it was foolhardy because it gave girls something to fall back on, hence an easy out if marriage and motherhood got too hard. I just shrugged it off; it was his opinion only. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive of my desire to serve a mission, and the assumption in my family when I was growing up was that every one of us would attend college, male or female; gender made no difference to my dad. So I was able to back-burner my bishop's words. They didn't apply to me.

After my mission, I had the opportunity to visit with Jacob de Jager, then a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, considered a General Authority of the church. I'd met him on my mission, and I'd felt an instant bond with him. He must have felt it as well, for he called my parents before I returned home, and asked that I visit him in his office upon my return from my mission. So, I trekked to the administration building of the church, sat myself down in his office, and proceeded to ask him the burning question on my mind. "Why was I born female?" I asked. "Did I somehow offend God?" I can't remember what precipitated this particular query, and I can't remember the words he spoke in reply. I just remember the feeling that I'd been figuratively patted on the head and reassured that I was loved deeply as a cherished daughter of a Heavenly Father. And I tucked that conversation away on a shelf deep within the recesses of my mind, not taking it out for examination for many years.

Fast forward a few years to June 1985. I had just graduated from nursing school, and was working in a nursing home as I prepared to leave Ogden for my new job at LDS hospital in Salt Lake. I had become friendly with a coworker, a guy who flirted with all the girls, and I ended up at his apartment, alone, late one night. This is a difficult story to tell, and I will leave out many details, but the gist of it is that we had sex that night. In retrospect, I came to the realization that I'd been manipulated and, if rape means going ahead with the act even after being told "No", I'd been raped. I was 24 years old, and had planned on being a virgin until marriage. In my mind, I'd been complicit, and I got what I deserved. Therefore, a visit to the bishop of my single's ward and a confession were in order.

The bishop was surprisingly flippant and casual in my conversations with him, as if we were discussing the use of four-letter words. He said that, as I was a returned missionary and temple endowed, I was subject to a disciplinary 'court of love'. A date was set, and I showed up with a friend in tow, a woman who was RS president in her own ward, the only person who had heard my story. She was a trusted friend, and she had offered to accompany me to provide some much needed support. I hadn't shared this situation with my family, in fact I wouldn't do so for many months yet, so I was very much in need of support and friendship.

When we arrived at the bishop's office, I was invited in, and my friend was invited to make herself at home in the foyer. I was very dismayed, as this meant that I would be alone with the three men who comprised the bishopric, and would have to share intimate details of my sin with them, these men who were virtual strangers to me. Yet, this was the way it was done, and I didn't have the strength, or the knowledge, to protest. My memories of this situation are understandably fuzzy. I do remember one of the men cried; I couldn't look at him for fear that I would lose my composure as well. The bishop, however, was still as flippant as when we'd first met. I was asked some questions, I told the story as best I could, facts only, they asked me to step out for a moment while they considered my fate, then, after maybe half an hour, I was informed that I was to be disfellowshipped from the church. I had to relinquish my temple recommend, I was not to take the sacrament, I was not to talk or pray in church, and I would have to meet with the bishop weekly to discuss my progress. I was told it would take at least 6 months, maybe a year, before I would once again be a member in good standing.

I remember feeling exhausted, spiritually and physically, and I felt as if I were viewing the world through old-fashioned glass, all wavy and thick. And I remember feeling alone, abandoned, set adrift in a sea of testoterone. I don't understand to this day why I couldn't have had my friend accompany me into the office. She already knew the details of my story; what was the point of making me face three unknown, unfamiliar men during what I still consider to be one of the most traumatic moments of my life? Why were my judges men only? Men, who didn't seem to have the capacity to understand what had happened to me, who didn't even know the right questions to ask. Men, who had never known the vulnerability of a late night alone with a physically stronger male, subject to his whims due to my failure to think like a man and prepare myself for a possible assault. Men, who didn't stop to think that I might be in need of female support and comfort after having my spirit brutally attacked and maimed.

All these years later, and I still feel pretty raw. And angry. Time has not healed these wounds.

Last week, I read the book, "From Housewife to Heretic", by Sonia Johnson. She was excommunicated from the church back in 1979, presumably for her political activities with the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember when it happened, and I completely bought the rhetoric, spread by the church, that she was an uppity female who got what she deserved. I didn't give her situation any more thought, until last week. While reading her story, the conditions were just right, the atmosphere cleared, and I saw the contrails patriarchy has etched into my soul. Instead of throwing my head back in awe, I stumbled under the weight of a lifetime of believing that I was less-than, inferior, incapable of hearing the voice of God for myself. God's word has been filtered through the priesthood, through men, some of whom were kind and gentle, many of whom were arrogant and flippant. I was complicit, and I got what I deserved. What I can't figure out is why I was content to sit in the pews, week after week, and be 'presided' over. Why I didn't question the mostly implicit, occasionally explicit, admonition to be submissive, meek, compliant, feminine. Why I let someone else define for me what it means to be female, and feminine.

What I really can't get over is that for all these years I've been content with the idea that our only model for deity is male. That, while a Heavenly Mother has been vaguely referred to in hymns and on one or two occasions at the pulpit, she is not present in our worship, she is not acknowledged as God's wife and our mother, we are not to address her in prayer. We are discouraged from even talking about her, or speculating about her role in our creation, and some have lost their membership in the church for doing just that. Why has this been okay with me? Why have I not risen up in protest, demanding that I be allowed a relationship with my Heavenly Mother? And how could I have accepted the notion that celestial glory would mean the same non-existent relationship with my own offspring on their own planet, striving to return to their Father and me without the benefit of my loving presence or wisdom? Why has it taken until now to allow myself to see clearly, and to acknowledge the pain patriarchy has caused? Why?

I'll tell you why. Because to acknowledge the very patriarchal nature of the church, to admit my discomfort with priesthood authority being exclusively male, to allow myself to be angry at the men who have run this show, is to acknowledge that maybe they don't speak for God after all. That maybe they don't have the last word. That they aren't any more deserving than I am to hear God's word, to administer the affairs of the church, to sit in judgement of their fellow men, or women. To tell me what my inner spirituality should look like, and how that should be manifest in my daily life. That they are just men; flawed, imperfect men. No more worthy than I to be God's mouthpiece.

I have been very lucky to have a man in my life who loves me for me, who has never made me feel like he 'presides' over me, who stands next to me as we lead our family together. Sometimes he leads, sometimes I do; depends on the day, and the situation. I have not experienced the bitter fruits of patriarchy within my own home, so I haven't had to examine my feelings about men, God, and church. Until the conditions were right, and I could see.