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 images 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.
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. 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 or answering a child’s questions about God, they are helping to birth something new, something unique for the Church in our time and for our world.
Possibly the greatest gift women can give to the Church today is to break the silence in which they were traditioned, to project their 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” I am disappointed that he isn’t talking about ordination. 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. 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 a challenging time to be Church as women like myself discern opportunities to pass on to others the Pentecost Fire. Life rarely comes to birth without a struggle and often we are not aware of what is being born through us. 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, Juliana 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.