April 2015

Traditioning: women passing on the story

As the years have rolled on I have asked myself whether traditioning is the matter that we teach, or is it more passing on who we are, writes Judith Scully.

BY Judith Scully

It’s footy season in my part of the world, the kind of football played with an oval ball. My five-year-old grandson follows the Magpies – that’s Collingwood for the uninitiated. He has a black-and-white striped jumper, scarf and beanie. He knows all the players’ names and can sing the team theme song right through with the deep, slightly off-key growl favoured by his idols. Even though his mother follows a different AFL team, male tradition won the day because his father and his grandfather are life-long supporters of Collingwood.

Traditioning, learning the usual way to do ordinary things, starts early and has a long life. Parents pass on Gospel values like compassion and forgiveness, along with traditional practices like cleaning teeth and table manners. But religious practices, such as saying night prayers and grace before meals, lighting a candle before a religious image and so on, seem to be the domain of mothers and grandmothers. Maybe it’s just another tradition, that in the world of God and spirit and emotion, women are more comfortable than men.

We come from a long line of women. Mothers, grandmothers, friends, aunts, teachers, cousins and so on, are threaded through our lives and have contributed to making us the women we are. Most women sacrificed their family name when they married, but kept precious family-of-origin traditions which they incorporated into their children’s lives. Some joined religious congregations and midwifed the faith of generations of children. Women like my Methodist grandmother, inherited a religious tradition that she shared with her husband, and it was the centre of her social life. I don’t recall her ever talking about God, but she had a Bible on her bedside table and read a piece every night, something that has influenced my own faith journey.

Bits and pieces of family religious beliefs and the language in which they were expressed filter down through the generations. However the God story is passed on, whether in a domestic situation or through a parish or the particular focus of a religious congregation, it can get bogged down in outdated words and practices. What needs to be rejected and what retained?

All my adult life has been focused on faith traditioning through ministries such as religious education for children, Baptism preparation, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), faith-sharing groups, and now spiritual writing. Only very occasionally did I feel that my ministry had a stand-alone value. As the years have rolled on I have asked myself whether traditioning is the matter that we teach, or is it more passing on who we are.

Women don’t so much teach faith as embody it, and the way we do that has changed enormously in my lifetime. Women’s spirituality, unlike that of males, is relational and in touch with personal vulnerability. Maria Harris writing in Dance of the Spirit, says that “women’s spirituality takes seriously the major issues in their lives and the major elements in their daily experience; issues such as brokenness, connection and power, elements such as love, work, death”.

You may have seen that wonderfully human and distinctly feminine TV series, Call the Midwife. Along with their medical bags, these young midwives brought with them knowledge and professional experience. Midwives are threshold women, encouraging the struggle and sometimes fear, that explodes into the joy of a brand new life.

Cynthia Bourgeault calls women who tradition others into religious spirituality, midwives of the Spirit, “working within the raw materials of the physical world, giving ‘birthing’ and ‘body’ to the names of God so that the invisible becomes visible”. Mary Ruth Broz and Barbara Flynn describe such women as Midwives of an Unnamed Future in their lovely book of the same name.

Spiritual midwives are in a privileged position; whether as spiritual directors or informally companioning another in their search for God, one-on-one, or in a group, or preparing teenagers to be women of faith, they are helping to birth something new, something unique for the Church in our time and for our world.

For some years I facilitated Sophia Circles, groups of women who met monthly to talk about the ordinariness and complexity of their lives and their struggle to find God there. It was a sacred space as well as a safe place, somewhere to recognise God among cups of coffee, laughter and tears. This year I discerned that it was time to withdraw and facilitation has been picked up from within the group. It’s been a humbling experience to recognise that whatever my previous contribution may have been, something new is evolving and it doesn’t need me. The Spirit is at work.

It is particularly twenty-first century-like to see women like myself standing on a threshold and welcoming others to cross it with us. Possibly the greatest gift we can give to the Church today is to break the silence in which we were traditioned, to project our voice into the wider Church. We have the life experience to pass on the gifts that we have inherited from the long line of women whose spiritual blood courses though our veins. We are called to share our truth with other women, especially those who find that their faith has pushed out to the margins.

When Pope Francis says that he is “convinced of the urgency of offering spaces for women in the Church” and that he wants a “more widespread and incisive female presence”, we can be sure he isn’t talking about ordination. Like many others, I see no reason why women cannot be ordained, but I am realistic enough to know that such a move will not occur in my lifetime. But praying the pain and injustice of that has enabled me to recognise that women picking up their prophetic voice and giving it words is an important step into an unnamed future.

This is an exciting and challenging time to be Church as we discern opportunities to pass on to others the Pentecost fire. But life rarely comes to birth without a struggle and often we are not aware of what is being born through us. The woman who midwifed the deeper beginning of my faith journey died years ago. She didn’t say much, but her whole person somehow brought my emerging potential to life.

Women around the world are feeling empowered to speak out about what they see as their God potential. Echoing the voices of Teresa and Catherine, Julian and Hildegarde, and powered by the silent desires of generations of women, they give voice to the voiceless and thread harshness with compassion. They have been, and sometimes still are, our midwives of the Spirit. We walk in their footsteps, even as we branch out into the unknown.

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge judithscully.com.au. Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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