The New Theology-Sheology: Mystical Women's Spiritual Movements, Gaining Momentum and Adherents

Pagans at the Harvard Divinity School. A goddess-centered ritual at the University of Pennsylvania. A feminist Seder in Silver Spring. New moon groups at a rabbinical seminary. Women's spirituality sessions at Appalachian State University, Wesleyan University, Brown.

What on earth is going on?

If the events of the last few months are any indication, women are looking for a spiritual connection — for a way to push the boundaries of their religious experience beyond the ordinary confines of traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism. Consciousness-raising may have been the solace of the '70s and career development the icon of the '80s, but the '90s offer a very different option — the spirit.

Today's seekers, after all, are the daughters of the feminist revolution. Not for them the victimized heroines and saints of the past. Not for them the patriarchal structure of the male-dominated religions of the Old and New Testaments.

Their touchstones are the pagan religions, the pre-Christian Earth-centered goddess cults that stress the harmony of the universe — movements that offer equality rather than hierarchy, peace rather than war, joy rather than guilt, ritual rather than rote.

"It's religion without the middleman — including sex and drugs," says Margot Adler, a journalist at National Public Radio and the author of Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshipers and Other Pagans in America Today.

The women's spirituality movement, which practitioners estimate as attracting as many as 500,000 people across the country, is basically benign. And has nothing to do with the satanic cults of national TV talk shows. Whether mainstream, new age, goddess-oriented (a point of view expressing a female- and earth-centered style of worship rather than a specific body of liturgy) or Wiccan (a mainly British Isles paganism that refers to the Old English word for witch), today's celebrants are as various as they are hard to count.

"It's definitely growing, but you'll never get hard figures," says Adler, whose book was originally published in 1979 and, with more than 100,000 in print, still sells more than 10,000 a year. "A group of women can start a group and not tell anybody, and you'll have a thriving group doing rituals and who will know?"

What can be traced is the flourishing book industry, mostly out of San Francisco, that the movement has spawned. Two books published in 1979 — Adler's and The Spiral Dance, a more personal vision by the San Francisco-based "priestess" known as Starhawk — have been particularly influential.

What can also be pinned down are the threads that are woven through the burgeoning movement: a dissatisfaction with the way women are treated within traditional religions, a yearning for ritual, a desire for a historical connection, despair over the fragmentation of society and a concern about the future of the planet.

Says Diana Hayes, professor of theology at Georgetown:
"Within Christianity, theology and spirituality have been male oriented, male dominated, because they are the ones articulating it. But we all are affected by who we are, where we came from, our life experience, our relationship with god.

So the challenge has been to get this realization out in the open and to have the men who dominate theological circles realize that they cannot speak for the rest of the human race. Women do not think or act the way men do. Therefore our spirituality will not be the same as men's."

Listen to voices from the women's spirituality movement:
“Diann Neu, women's religious leader, master's degrees in sacred theology and in divinity from the Graduate Theological Union, Graduate School of Theology, Berkeley; co-founder of WATER (Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) in Silver Spring: "I was a Catholic woman who thought I'd be one of the first to be ordained. I thought it would happen by 1980. After all, there were only two possible paths from the seminary: to teach on a faculty or to be ordained. I wasn't interested in teaching and of course couldn't be ordained — though I always hoped there was the possibility. I was disappointed. Pained. Hurt. Angry. Distressed. So I started creating alternatives. I knew it was something I needed to do. It was very exciting to me."

Starhawk, priestess of the Old Religion of the Goddess, witch, religious leader, writer, counselor, women's spirituality superstar:
"In the very simplest terms, the goddess represents the sacredness of nature, of human life and human creativity as well — the idea that human beings are meant to be integrated with nature. In the goddess tradition the sacred is embodied in the earth, in ecological systems, in human beings in different cultures. If we're all sacred, we have to deal equally with each other. And when we really see the earth as this sacred place, and we know that everything is connected, it makes it very hard to think about killing somebody, to write off whole groups of people."

Diana Hayes, Catholic convert (from AME), professor of theology, Georgetown University:
"All of us have to be allowed to voice our spirituality in our own ways. I see myself not as a feminist but as a womanist, a feminist of color. Women of color — black, Hispanic, Asian — have begun to realize that the feminist movement has been an exclusive, white, middle, and upper-middle-class movement. Womanists are challenging the feminist movement in the same way that feminists have been challenging the church. As a black woman within the Catholic church, without that attitude, I'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind."

Margot Adler, journalist, an elder with Covenant of the Goddess, a priestess, the granddaughter of analyst Alfred Adler:
"I think it would be fair to say that none of this would have happened to me if I hadn't been hit over the head in the seventh grade by studying the gods Artemis and Athena. This was the late '50s, and there weren't a lot of powerful images of women. What was interesting was we studied Greece for a whole year, and this was my religion. But I think way down deep I didn't want to worship these goddesses — I wanted to be them."

Linda Pinty, a student at Harvard Divinity School, the intern minister at the First Parish Church of Unitarian Universalists in Cambridge, and one of the co-founders of CUPPS, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans:
“I was brought up a Baptist in Michigan but left the church in my late teens and read my way to the Unitarian Universalists. I felt it was a place I could have freedom to search. The neo-pagan movement brings a lot of things together. It offers a much healthier and holistic way of experiencing ecstasy about life, the goodness of creation and connecting at deep levels with other creatures. In neo-paganism, a need to heal the earth is prominent — it's important to take care of Mother Earth."

Susan Gale, a Philadelphia wife and mother and self-described "radical feminist witch not yet out of the broom closet" in her neighborhood:
"There's a pain that's in young women even a decade after feminism. I was raised in a tough poor working-class neighborhood. My mother was a German Protestant, my father an Italian Catholic. I was raised as a very religious Presbyterian, but it didn't matter that I was the most brilliant student in my religion class — there wasn't a place for me as a minister. Deacons and ministers were men. And a lot of it rubbed me the wrong way: the anti-sexuality, anti-sensuality, the guilt and sin and punishment rather than joy. From the time I was a little kid, I couldn't accept redemptive suffering. Why is the central metaphor of most religions the bloody violent death of a male? Why is it not birth?"

Invoking the Spirit

Starhawk signs her books "Blessed be." It is also her greeting and her Amen.

In a large room set up with flowers, crystals, trinkets and copies of her books, she presided recently at a women's ritual at the University of Pennsylvania's Christian Association.

"Where would you like the altar?" asked a participant before the candles encased in glass were set on a brightly colored cloth in the center of the room.

Two hundred women of similar mind-sets — but varying ages, religions, occupations and sexual orientations — were ready to join Starhawk at the three-hour, $40 event. Another couple of hundred men and women arrived later that evening for Starhawk's lecture.

People like Geela Razael Raphael, a rabbinical student who was one of the event's organizers. "Starhawk is a spiritual leader, a women's spirituality leader," says Raphael. "As a potential rabbi wanting to be a spiritual leader, I want to see as many role models as I can. Her form of non-hierarchical religion can be used in more traditional practice."

In person, the 40ishpriestess looks not unlike the onetime tall Jewish girl from Los Angeles she used to be. But her soft-voiced, authoritative presence and staccato chanting and drumming command her sessions with surprising power.

Women wear comfortable clothing: jeans, skirts, sweaters, tie-dye revisited. A majority tend to be of a certain size — the goddess religion rejoices in the female body. There are many embraces. Networking materials are exchanged. Before casting the formal circle that so many women's rituals start out with, Starhawk encourages the youngest and strongest in the group to form an inner circle around the altar.

Starhawk warms up the group with physical and vocal stretches. As participants form a larger ring around the inner one, she "casts" the ritual circle, theoretically making the space within it a special place. Candles representing the four directions and the Earth's center are lit. Earth, air, fire and water are invoked.

Women stand and sway as she drums, urging them to find their centers, their connectedness, often against the background of a simple chant:
"Rising, rising, the earth is rising.
Turning turning, the tide is turning.
Changing changing, she changes everything she touches.
Changing, changing, and everything she touches changes."

Like many women's ritual leaders, Starhawk uses such chants as a kind of surrogate liturgy. Presented at different moments that morning, the lilting song she teaches is used as a blessing, a uniting force, a backdrop to movement and dance.

Starhawk leads the group through a series of activities — some that draw upon the circle as a whole, some small group discussions, guided visualizations. "What kind of a body are you in?" she asks. "Look at your body. How does it feel?"

Some people writhe. Others beat time to the drums. Some stand awkwardly (earlier she assured them not to worry if they feel ill at ease). Some look dubious.

To focus the visualization even more, Starhawk takes the group to an imaginary crossroads in the sky. "Close your eyes," she says. "Reach out and feel and touch and smell these roads until you find one that feels like a road in the future. Go down the road. Know you can come back to this place of power because it is you. And remember there are many roads to the future. The road you chose is only one possibility."

The session ends with a grand finale "spiral dance" — clockwise to invoke, then counterclockwise to release. "Anything you want to do involves both," she says.

A gifted speaker with an easy sense of humor, Starhawk is equally at home beating time in the center of a ritual or working the crowd at the podium of a lecture hall. She is also at home with what she calls the "W" word ("witch"). "Unless we understand it, we don't know why a powerful woman is so threatening and so frightening," she says. "There was a 400-year reign of terror particularly directed against women who were then burned alive," she says, likening the witch hunts to the African slave trade, the Holocaust.

Starhawk became interested in witchcraft in her late teens when she and a friend did a student seminar on the subject at UCLA. Now she is at the forefront of a movement to reclaim the word for positive use. (Male witches also use the word rather than warlock, which means traitor.)

For most people, of course, the word "witch" conjures up an image of a crinkled old woman you wouldn't want your children to talk to. But the picture of the craft that emerges within today's women's spirituality movement (and that is reinforced by Starhawk's Philadelphia ritual) is a combination of group therapy, positive thinking, stretching exercises, guided visualization, song and dance — and even pot luck.

Its goddess- and nature-oriented precepts are similar to the Old Religion of prehistoric times and societies that fell victim to the witch hunts and persecutions of medieval and renaissance Europe. It is earth-centered, individualistic and peace-loving.

Starhawk spends about a third of her time teaching ritual and spreading the faith at college campuses and other forums around the country, and in Canada. She feels that people crave it. "Even people who live in cities — like most of us — are still connected to the cycles of nature," she says. "Doing ritual that helps you affirm that helps us not to feel cut off from the larger life around us, the actual life support systems that sustain our lives."

Women's Rites

Spring, with its vivid reminders of the cycle of birth and death And rebirth, is a fertile time for the rituals of women's spirituality. Look at some recent manifestations in the Washington area:
Last month, attracted by a flier heralding a celebration of the goddess ("dancing, singing, drumming, healing, creativity, inspiration, discovery, nurturing and goddess games"), 21 women gathered in a conference center in Potomac in honor of the spring equinox. "The day was designed for women who wanted to bring out the goddess within them," says organizer Nancy Smith, a seminar leader who specializes in stress management and massage therapy.

120 men, women and children turned up last month for a feminist Seder (for Holy Thursday as well as Passover) put on by the Silver Spring-based WATER. Now a place where Christian and Jewish women can come together for a feminist interpretation of religious rituals, WATER was created by Diann Neu and Mary Hunt, two Catholic theologians, in 1983. They send out 10,000 newsletters, stage workshops, conferences and lectures, hold ecumenical monthly breakfasts for women in ministry, publish books and act as an all-purpose feminist resource.

On April 14, the new moon heralded the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hodosh. A group of women interested in finding or creating ritual specifically for Jewish women gathered in a Silver Spring home in honor of the occasion. Instead of going ahead with their scheduled topic — the redefinition of God in non-masculine terms — the group (representing a 30-year age span) shared its feelings and prayed (to the feminine aspect of god) about the recent death of a 42-year-old friend.

At the All Souls Church in the District a smaller group of women is currently investigating women's religious history each Sunday afternoon through "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven," a 10-part correspondence course available through the Unitarian Universalist Church. Bev Tubby, who took the course last year, is one of the conveners this year. "In spite of everything that's been written about feminism and role differences, women really do bring a wonderfully strong view to this world," she says. "We do have a different perspective — it has to do with the human context and human relationships. If women are not cognizant of their spiritual history, they are missing out on a more complete identity that can help form our ideas of who we are and what we want to do in this world and how we're going to do it."

And June 6, "Kestryl & Company," the first of six biweekly talk shows about contemporary witchcraft will air on Arlington Community Cable, Channel 33. Produced by Cheryl Ann Costa, a computer programmer and third-degree Wicca high priestess, and moderated by Erica Angell (known as Kestryl), a housewife and second-degree high priestess, the show will feature high priests, magical tool makers, tarot experts and pagan bards. "Many people are looking for a way to plug into The Craft," says Costa. This is an easy way to do it.

Having cast their lot with an enlarged view of the sacred, these women, like many others all over the country, are looking to the spiritual as a hope for the future.

"It's life-giving for me to be a part of it, and to create it," says WATER's Neu.

"What I keep coming back to is that there is a growing power within women. We are breaking all kinds of silences. Things are happening because there are more and more groups where women feel safe. My hope is that we'll keep creating these safe spaces where being together as men and women is possible."

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