Loss of the Feminine Divine

If you met a goddess-worshipper, would you see her (or him) as odd? I probably would look twice.

We tend to think of those who worship the feminine divine as pagan witches or New Age kooks who are ever-so-slightly off their rockers.

But as I reflect upon my upbringing in the Christian church, I missed the presence of strong females in the stories I heard on Sunday mornings. The Virgin Mary always seemed sweet, but she never had the sass or intrigue of Jesus, and she definitely didn’t wrestle with any angels.

For hundreds of years, men and women in the Western world haven’t had a healthy, independent female divinity to connect with, and perhaps have started to suffer for it. Athena, Aphrodite and Demeter used to rule alongside men, and historical evidence contends that Hera once was more widely worshipped than Zeus. But Western religion has become increasingly patriarchal as female associations subtly moved aside to make room for the heroic males conquering the pages of our holy texts.

Religions do more than provide us with a set of morals. They give us archetypes and role models. Author Tim Ward explored the loss of the divine feminine in his book, “Savage Breast.” He quoted Carl Jung: “Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image … an imprint or ‘archetype’ of all the ancestral experiences of the female.” If he’s right, consider what this means. Throughout school we absorb chosen relics of society’s mythology, from “The Odyssey” to Noah’s Ark to “Romeo and Juliet.” If we passively soak up all these depictions of men and women, our definitions of gender roles are going to evolve accordingly.

For example, in “Savage Breast,” Ward suggests that the utterly non-sexual purity of the Virgin Mary gives men and women an unrealistic ideal of purity. The Virgin Mary, from what I understand, is worshipped largely for obedience to her god, while God appears in fiery bushes and Jesus knocks over tables while yelling about society’s wrongs. The Virgin Mary just stays put. I don’t think purity and obedience are negative traits, but I wish the writers of our cultural mythology had provided a few strong female figures to balance out her passive nature, like a warrior, prophet or priestess. (There are a few, but no one tells their stories in Sunday school.)

Some, like Ward, suggest many men idealize purity because of the Virgin Mary archetype. I recall a story I read in Russian literature class – a dashing man falls in love with a girl named Liza. He adores her innocent nature but as soon as he takes her virginity he loses interest in her and leaves her. She consequently commits suicide. Sound vaguely familiar?

For all the reverence our largely Christian country pays to Mary, the very word “passive,” a trait traditionally associated with the feminine, implies negativity and weakness in America. We don’t take too kindly to vulnerability in our society, despite the fact that Jesus – our most prevalent religious figure – claimed in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To illustrate the dominance of the active over the passive, consider this: When was the last time you were making small talk and couldn’t think of anything to say? Maybe your heart beat a tad faster as your mind raced for words. There’s a certain assumption in our society that if we don’t fill every moment with speech – utilizing the active force – we are inept or weak. I always have wondered whether all humans similarly regarded conversational pauses as “awkward silence” or if Americans were especially antsy about it. Apparently, other cultures like the Maori of New Zealand revere silence within conversations. Long pauses signify reflection and appreciation of what was said rather than self-blame. Perhaps it is a pure coincidence that Maori worship includes both male and female deities, but I wonder if that diversity promotes an embrace of passivity – a “feminine” trait.

Passivity – associated with the yin, or the Taoist feminine energy – is an underutilized treasure in Western society. Sure, Americans work hard, we’re efficient and we’re productive. Those things are not exactly evil, because if no one worked to fulfill their dreams we wouldn’t change a thing. But how would we know what to work toward if we never introspected? What’s the use of efficiency if it costs us our gentleness and temper? When everybody wants to talk instead of listening, then what’s the point of conversing? If you’re all Yang – the male energy – and no Yin, then you’re all action but no substance. Most people consider the ideals of “surrendering” and “giving up” as negative values. But sometimes surrender helps you to lose your own agenda and simply experience the divine, which is basically the point of spirituality.

I do not, by any means, intend to subjugate women by reducing them to gendered descriptions like passivity. However, I realize almost every major world religion associates women with earth, darkness, passivity, receptiveness and nurturing. The male energy typically recalls the sky, activity and aggression. Thus, I object that our society represses a whole set of healthy traits because they are associated with femininity. Maybe once we broaden our religious archetypes to make room for the goddess again, we can let everyone bask in the warmth of the “feminine” gentleness and passivity while offering women the cultural legroom to try on some new roles.

Surrender your agenda and breathe peace

Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by giving up. Every major spiritual strain I know of insists we can only discover true happiness by letting go of our own agendas and handing our lives to forces unknown.

Christians might recognize the concept as surrendering to God. Taoists call it “wu-wei” or non-action. Hindus call it Saranagati, surrendering to the underlying force behind the universe. The word “Islam” means surrender, among other definitions. Look at Jews, Buddhists, Jains. Pick any religious strain, and you probably will discover this universal thread embedded in the system.

Surrender features so prominently within every religious system, and they can’t all be wrong. But why is it so popular – do a few power-hungry leaders use surrender as a religious tool to subordinate the masses? Or does surrender actually help us to grow spiritually?

I believe it’s a seed for growth. Ironically, giving up fills the practitioner with a greater power than one person alone could manage. When you willingly become weak in the face of the Almighty, a divine force supposedly will encompass you. Once you have let go of your own agenda, you become a divine vessel. Your actions and your will no longer belong to you.

Although I recognized the concept of surrender from my Christian upbringing, my Taoism class this semester reintroduced the idea to me as “wu-wei.” The Taoists believe in an underlying force, Tao, within the entire universe that encompasses anyone who lets it guide them. When you surrender, you let the course of nature take you where it will.

The Tao Te Ching states in verse 22, “Surrender brings perfection / The crooked become straight / The empty become full / The worn become new.”

This sounded like a logical idea to me, and I decided to try it. I found going with the flow makes life less stressful, mostly because forcing my own will on what I do never completely works. Let’s say I’m driving during rush hour in the middle of a city. I have a few choices. I could make a fuss about getting home quickly or I could stay in traffic, quietly getting home whenever I arrive. Choosing the former means I watch every moment for a free spot in the next lane. I move over, forcing myself between two cars – blocking both lanes of traffic in the meantime – until I have enough room to move into the lane. I do this repeatedly. I honk my horn. I am spending most of my time stressing out about what to do next, my mind spinning with frustration and plotting my next move while the car continues to stand still.

Meanwhile, I could just keep my place in traffic. Sure, it will be slower, but what do you really have to do that absolutely cannot wait for 20 minutes? You at least will get home relaxed and stress-free. And besides, why worry about something you can’t control?

Whenever someone offends or aggravates me, I find snapping back in a spiteful and defensive manner doesn’t cool the boiling water quite like a humble and empathetic attitude does. I’m sure you can relate. On Sunday morning I was meditating – early, because I had to catch the 7:45 a.m. train back to La Plata – when my dad interrupted me twice to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. The second time, I barked that I was awake and had plenty of time – in an ironically hostile tone for a meditator, I admit. I felt slightly guilty afterward, and my dad told me later that he was offended by my reaction. If I had quietly told him I was on time and would be out in just a few moments, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all those injured feelings from acting hastily and attempting to bend the situation to my will.

The Taoists would say strong winds will uproot a giant tree rather than the pliant, supple grass, which can withstand just about anything. That’s how surrender brings you power. A Taoist warrior trains for flexibility, because an effective warrior must stay attentive to changes and surprises – inevitable in the battlefield – and react to whatever comes their way. The alternative – planning a stoic strategy and training soldiers rigidly – will fail.

The Tao naturally directs the willing and guides them toward a natural perfection. The Tao Te Ching compares this to water: “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water / Yet for attacking the hard and strong none can triumph so easily / It is weak, yet none can equal it / It is soft, yet none can damage it / It is yielding, yet none can wear it away.”

Christianity, moreover, asserts that when surrendering to Christ you become infused with him. I have heard many Christians talk about its most enthusiastic and loving followers as “shining with Jesus’ light.” The Bible itself states, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. Although different paths conceptualize different reasons to explain the potentially divine force that replaces the surrendered human will, I see very little difference between them all. I have seen followers of many different faiths who seem to shine from an inner light of joy, which is almost contagious to witness. Their eyes beam with abundant generosity, solid devotion and an eagerness to share their joy with everyone. If such wealth can spring from surrender, then I’ll definitely allow the forces that be to guide my actions rather than go it alone.