Sunday, May 3, 2015

St. Gobnait of Ballyvourney: Lessons in Power from a Powerful Woman, by Jeannette Mulherin, " Holy Women in the Early Celtic Tradition"

Artist, Patricia Banker
This paper explores the ways in which 21st-century women could benefit from the example of St. Gobnait, a powerful woman whose use of power was beneficial to the religious community she founded, the wider community she served, and to St. Gobnait herself.    
In an article titled, Eight Ways of Looking at Power, author Stacy Schiff asks the question, “Women and power: Is there a more incendiary combination of words in the English language? Drinking and driving? Teenagers and sex?”  To which she provides the following response, “A woman can never be too rich or too thin, but until very, very recently, she could be too powerful, for which–if she wasn’t smart enough to camouflage herself–she paid the price.”[1]
As history attests, powerful women were rarely tolerated for long. The Apostle to the apostles, Mary Magdalen was labeled a prostitute, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, countless women of the Victorian era were deemed “hysterical” in societal efforts to diminish and silence them.     
In the long history of female powerlessness, St. Gobnait of Ballyvourney is a notable exception. What little is known of St. Gobnait’s life indicates she was a powerful woman who wielded power in multiple forms.  She demonstrated personal power when as a young woman she set out to forge her own destiny in a strange land. As a leader she exercised the power to organize, unify, and guide her community. In her role as protector, she asserted her power in self-defense, providing a vulnerable village with a 7th-century version of homeland security.[2]    
In the following pages, I will examine St. Gobnait’s use of power, attempting to extract lessons about power for today’s women, lessons hidden in the story of a powerful woman.    
St. Gobnait’s Power
It requires intelligence, maturity, and wisdom to identify and apply the form of power most likely to produce a favorable outcome. Evidence suggests that St. Gobnait was aware of the varied forms of power available to her, and chose among them with a keen eye toward attaining specific objectives.
An analysis of her life’s story indicates that St. Gobnait relied primarily on three categories of power: personal power, an individual’s inner strength or power to persist toward a goal; the power of leadership, that of a leader capable of organizing and inspiring those around her; and the power of force, the threat or use of violent force, in defense against certain destruction.                                        

Women have been taught that, for us, 
the earth is flat, 
and that if we venture out, 
we will fall off the edge.-
Andrea Dworkin, writer, and feminist

Personal Power

In the beginning of St. Gobnait’s story, we see a young woman who possesses an immense amount of personal power. In one version of Gobnait’s early history, she leaves the pirate ship she’d been traveling on with her father at the urging of an angel and journeys alone in a strange land. In an alternate version, she is said to have crossed the sea to escape a danger to her welfare.[3]  Could St. Gobnait’s demonstration of personal power inspire today’s woman to travel alone, move to a new city, or even discover an unexplored part her hometown? How many opportunities for growth do women miss because they chose not to access the personal power that saw St. Gobnait through the difficulties, anxiety, and fear inherent in striking out alone into the unknown?
            St. Gobnait’s journey began with a vision. She was to find the spot where nine white deer were grazing, and there found a monastery. Initially, she came upon three white deer, and further along, she spotted six white deer. She did not stop at these places. Almost good enough wasn’t good enough for St. Gobnait. She continued in her quest until the nine white deer finally appeared.[4]
In contrast, how many women of today give up or give in before their visions become reality? The justifications are many, and include the religiously inspired idea that women are selfish if they pursue their goals, and should be satisfied merely to support the goals of others, largely the goals of men.  St. Gobnait models a different set of values. She brooks no distractions, and tenaciously seeks that place in the world that is rightfully hers.
                                    The Power of Leadership
Some leaders are born women. –Geraldine Ferraro, attorney, politician, and vice presidential candidate
  St. Gobnait set to work establishing a self-sufficient community, one that required physical labor, a base of knowledge and technical skill that allowed the women to maintain livestock, produce food and crafts, and practice beekeeping.  The community of women did not seek male know-how or labor to provide for them, and yet, they produced such abundance they were able to share the fruits of their labor with the larger community.[5]   
Traditional religious teaching would have women believe that self-sufficiency is unfeminine and unimportant, as if a truly Christian woman wouldn’t bother with the man’s world of work, particularly work with a monetary compensation attached to it. And yet, St. Gobnait demonstrated otherwise. Could the women have prospered under male leadership? Likely, they would have been relegated to more ‘feminine” work, excluded from opportunities to perform the “masculine” work of community organizing and decision-making.  
The Power of Force
Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim." Nora Ephron,
writer, director, and journalist
St. Gobnait is easily her era’s version of Wonder Woman.  When the community was threatened with armed assault, she repeatedly trained her weapons (swarming bees and an agate bowl) on the enemy until they were defeated, ensuring the continued peace and prosperity of the monastery and surrounding village.  Surely, there were men living in the area and yet, it was the superior power and strength of a woman, St. Gobnait who was relied upon to ensure the security of the land.[6]  
            An essential aspect of St. Gobnait’s choice to use force is that she used it only in self-defense, but use it, she did.  When a woman is imprisoned for using deadly force against an attacker, jailed for defending herself against a violent spouse, or convicted of adultery when raped, society’s message to women is that they must submit to men, whatever the consequences. It is St. Gobnait who says otherwise,  demonstrating a woman’s right to defend herself.

Power used in the service of self-defense takes many forms. Would a woman like St. Gobnait tolerate those experiences so common in the lives of today’s women? How would she handle being interrupted when speaking? Belittling comments passed off as humor? Receiving a lower salary than her male counterparts? We do not have such details of her life. However, we can safely assume that a woman, who single-handedly defeats an armed enemy force, would likely protect herself and the women around her with equal fierceness, whatever the source or substance of the threat.


It is not often that a story from a distant era with so little detail could yield enlightened and practical guidance for the current age. St. Gobnait provides a model for women and men of the responsible and beneficial use of power in the service of humankind.

The society founded, nurtured, and protected by St. Gobnait was one in which the gifts of women were leveraged, ensuring each woman the opportunity for productive work, membership in a self-sufficient and peaceful community, and the opportunity to contribute to the larger world. St. Gobnait’s wise and judicious use of power made this possible.

What can today’s women learn from St. Gobnait about power? Perhaps her most important lesson is that power matters. Power should not be denied women, nor should women avoid the opportunity to wield power for their personal benefit or the benefit of society as a whole.

Power used to persevere toward a goal (personal power), to organize and inspire others toward a goal (leadership) and to defend those targeted by violence and injustice (the power of force), belong in the hands of those who would use such power wisely. St. Gobnait tells us that some of those people are women.

[1] Stacy Schiff Eight Ways of Looking at Power

[2] Oliver, Regina Madonna & Meehan, Bridget Mary, Praying with Celtic Holy Women. (Liguori/Triumph Publishing, Liguori, Missouri 2003)

[3] Ibid.(73-75)

[4] Ibid.(73-74)

[5] Ibid.(75)

[6] Ibid. (75)

(Paper submitted for Global Ministries University Course on Holy Women in the Early Celtic Tradition by Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan)

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