“A symbol of male spiritual dominance can be, and is, transformed by female creativity and agency . . . This is my body and when I am at the Eucharistic table and in the pulpit, I am female.”
"From the safety of my mother’s womb into the comfort of my parents’ arms, baptismal waters were gently poured on my infant self in 1962 at Holy Name Catholic Church. Created and blessed in both human and divine love, the water, the oil, and the candlelight were a communal welcome into the beauty and rigor of living along a christic path. On that day, with my infant eyes, I might have seen the sleeve of the alb in front of me and I might have felt the brush of the chasuble move before me. Sheltered under the breath and in the warmth of my parents’ care on the day of baptism, the liturgical garment was a mere shadow.
As a little girl, a teen, and a young adult, I watched the liturgical garb being worn, seemingly countless times; Sunday masses, weekly masses during grade school and high school, retreat masses, my Reconciliation mass, my Confirmation mass, my Wedding mass, my sons’ Baptism masses, my grandparents’ funeral masses, numerous family wedding masses, even Corpus Christi masses at Churchill Downs. Hundreds of times in my lifetime I have seen liturgical garb worn by male priests and bishops, garb reserved for the male body, for communal, sacred spaces defined and guarded by men.
By the time I reached early adulthood, I was sufficiently conditioned, like many Catholic girls and women, that the garb in front of my eyes is for men. And really, to be perfectly clear, it’s not much about the garb itself. It’s about bodies, it’s about skin, and it’s about spiritual meaning and authority assigned to one kind of body and not another. Catholic girls and women often internalize the belief that men’s bodies more fully bear the image of God and Christ during communal prayer. Beyond conscious reasoning, Catholic girls and women often carry within themselves an inward leaning, if not deference, toward male spiritual authority because of a lifetime of conditioning.
On the day of my ordination ceremony as a Catholic woman priest, I wore an alb made by a friend of mine. Years ago in a Catholic parish, this woman and I had ministered together to bring healing to Catholic women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Years later she graciously puts a measuring tape around my hips and bust line before walking the aisles of the fabric store with me. She fashioned a garment to be worn for communal liturgical leadership. As she and I know from our decades-long commitment to the safety and well-being of women and girls, the garb is about a woman’s skin and how she bears the image of God and Christ in her female body. When the woman bishop anointed me, I saw clearly before me her “red chasuble of acceptance.” A symbol of male spiritual dominance can be, and is, transformed by female creativity and agency.
My alb and stoles hang in my Chaplain’s office in the hospital. Each time I preside at Eucharistic liturgies and preach homilies in the chapel, I wear the garb with ongoing awareness that I palpably feel the fabric on my skin, draped around my female body; a body that began menstruating at age 13, a body that has miscarried, birthed, and breastfed; a body that benefitted from years of artificial birth control, a body that experiences sexual pleasure; a body that loves her husband’s nearness, a body that embraces her sons with fierce maternal care, a body that has endured a stalker and multiple harassers; a body that is excommunicated from the Catholic Church; a body that comforts loved ones, holds babies, takes risks, walks into dangerous places, and advocates for the vulnerable. This is my body and when I am at the Eucharistic table and in the pulpit, I am female. When I use balanced and inclusive language for humanity and divinity, when I deviate from the lectionary readings so as to preach compassion and not sin, and when I fashion prayers of acceptance rather than judgment, I am female. I am fully female, fully human, and fully in the image of Christ. Living into the beauty and rigor of my particular life, I resist the violence and stigma and I protect the space so that others may do so as well.
At the end of a recent chapel service, a female patient came up and wrapped her arms around me. My arms, clothed in white fabric and lace, I wrapped around her and held her.
It was a sacred exchange, an indelible experience.
The garb that once symbolized the exclusion of my female self is now at work;
it holds and accepts a vulnerable woman during her healing hours,
helping her to feel in her own body that the Divine One is near.
Let the garb, the symbol, be free.
Let it sing its deep meaning for those who thirst for transformation. "
June 25, 2018