Originally created 07/11/98

In growing spirituality movement, women assert their voice



This story is for and about women.

Men may read it. But as far as the women quoted here are concerned, men have had their say long enough about what religion is and how a person should express her spirituality.

It is time, they say, for women to reclaim their spiritual natures, to find comfort in their bodies and the world around them and to develop individual relationships with the Creator.

How that happens differs from woman to woman, because "there are no experts," said Robin Deen Carnes, one of the area's leading voices on women's spirituality and co-author of the book "Sacred Circles: A Guide to Creating Your Own Women's Spirituality Group."

"Everything divine is within us, and to bring out that expertise is to be who you really are," Carnes said during a taping of "Godtalk," an interfaith television program hosted by Bridget Mary Meehan.

Carnes and book collaborator Sally Craig were guests on the final two segments of a 10-part series on women's empowerment. Other participants have included Sophy Burnham, author of the best-selling "A Book of Angels," and a mixture of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims discussing what some observers call a "feminine spiritual awakening" in the United States and abroad.

Meehan, a nun with the Sisters of Christian Community, an order founded in the 1970s that has not sought official recognition and approval of the Vatican, stirred up the Roman Catholic community last year with a 10-part "Godtalk" on human sexuality.

Meehan's guests challenged the church's stance on such issues as birth control, divorce, homosexuality and the ordination of women as priests.

But Meehan, 50, says she is not on a crusade to radically alter the Catholic Church. Her scope is much broader: exploring the ways women are finding spiritual fulfillment within and without the boundaries of traditional religions.

"I am a bridge builder," said Meehan, who advocates that women reclaim the spiritual authority and voice they had before the rise of Christianity, when goddesses were revered as highly as gods and when life was "more communitarian, more egalitarian."

For Meehan, that means transforming Christianity, not replacing it with paganism. "I don't want to be portrayed as someone who worships goddesses but one who has great respect for (that) older journey," she said.

Workshops and seminars on feminist theology, mysticism, herbalism, music and dance have proliferated throughout the country.

Three at Washington National Cathedral featured "walking the labyrinth." In this revival of a medieval tradition, participants walk a flower-shaped maze of concentric circles painted on a large canvas the way pilgrims did 800 years ago in completion of their journey to cathedrals at Chartres and other cities.

"This is the most powerful stuff that's ever happened to me spiritually," Meehan said of her involvement in the movement.

She invited Craig and Carnes, who helped organize the events at the cathedral, to "Godtalk" to discuss their book on how women can form circles, or groups, for spiritual guidance and inspiration.

Craig, 54, and Carnes, 41, said they formed their group in Washington five years ago and wrote "Sacred Circles" because so many women, after hearing of its success, wanted to join. But allowing it to grow beyond 15 would defeat part of the purpose, intimacy, so they decided to tell others how to form their own groups.

Craig and Carnes, both of whom are married with children, said the purpose of their group is to celebrate "essential female resources, values and rituals."

Group members pray, dance, tell stories, draw, sing, give one another massages, recount dreams and visions, light candles -- whatever feels right at the time.

"We tell women, 'You can do this. It's magic, but that doesn't mean it's beyond you,' " Carnes said.

But the sacred circle is not intended to be a support group for people with severe or continuing emotional problems.

"We only wanted women who were not psychologically needy, (who are not) high-maintenance women," said Craig.

That does not mean psychological healing does not take place, but it's not the primary purpose, she said.

Craig and Carnes have been traveling since January to promote the book, which has sold more than 14,000 copies, and to direct workshops and give talks. They have been amazed by the hunger for virtually anything about women's spirituality.

Many women have left a religion or denomination because they felt beaten down rather than uplifted by their churches, synagogues or mosques, said Carnes, who found her Southern Baptist upbringing "so dutiful and dour." Sunday school lessons and sermons seldom celebrated the lives of women, she said.

Carnes said it took "years of recovery" before she felt "safe around religion" again. Today, she doesn't attend a church but finds joy in her monthly spirituality group.

Craig calls her spiritual journey a "180-(degree) experience." She was raised in a "secular Unitarian" household but now belongs to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, and has nurtured a longtime interest in Buddhist practice and philosophy.

Women have made inroads in politics, business, the family and other social institutions, Carnes said, but only now are "questioning and reclaiming their spiritual perspective."

Experiencing "the Creator and Great Spirit as being feminine as well as masculine empowers women like nothing else does," she said.