I take a seat next to Sophia, who’s got a sprained ankle propped up on the table. Across the room is Margaret, with long legs and a flawless manicure, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. I recognize her from Mass, and soon learn that in contrast to her outspoken personality, she’s a former contemplative nun. On my other side is Agnes, with a broad smile and a glittering scarf around her neck, also a former nun, from an order that works among the poorest of the poor. Elizabeth, with curly dark hair and leaping hand gestures, is wearing red and getting everyone water, and it turns out that she too briefly lived in a convent after she finished high school. As they introduce themselves, more details are forthcoming: Margaret is retired and has been with her female partner for twenty-five years; Agnes is a theology professor and writer, with two kids in college; Elizabeth works for an educational program and volunteers everywhere. I am, by decades, the youngest woman there.
Ten years ago, it began at Masses, they tell me. These women, who knew one another via various ministries, kept saying to one another after the Mass that it “wasn’t enough.” Sure, women got up and read from the Bible, but otherwise, they weren’t visible on the altar. “So I went to the pastor at the time,” Agnes says, “and said, women make up the majority of this congregation. You ought to think about letting us speak now and then.” Surprisingly, he went for it, and ever since then, women have delivered reflections at our church.
Some of those women decided that it still wasn’t enough, so one of them, who was teaching at theological school and studying female mystics and contemplative prayer communities, suggested a monthly gathering: a time to share experiences— good and bad—as Catholic women, and a time to reflect. This is what Sophia referred to as “pray and bitch.” Also, they decided there should always be dessert.
There is an established intimacy among these women that is, at first, a little daunting. Any time you enter a room full of people who’ve been talking to one another for a decade, there is going to be a period when you spend most of your time simply listening. So that’s what I do. I hear what they’re saying about faith, about the priests at our church and how they relate to women, about the bishops and cardinals above the priests and how they ignore women, about the things they are reading and thinking about. And I realize several things in rapid succession: you can be Catholic and feminist. You can be Catholic and lesbian. You can be Catholic and a straight female and not have kids. You can be Catholic and have children but wonder if they should be Catholic. You can be Catholic and believe in better access to birth control, especially in impoverished and AIDS-ravaged communities. You can be Catholic and female and not be a nun and still be a leader in the church. Women, as it turns out, are part of the priestly class. It’s just that they aren’t allowed to minister publicly. They do it in places like here, and in hospitals, classrooms, homeless shelters, and in any room, really, where there is someone who needs healing.
The pray-and-bitch routine: First, somebody (this night it’s Margaret’s turn) produces some sort of food for thought, usually a reading, and then everyone meditates silently for a while. Squirmy and terrible at meditating, I feel like this goes on forever, when in reality, it’s probably twenty minutes. After that, everyone talks about what came up while they were meditating, we read a Psalm together, and then we eat dessert: tonight, some sort of poppyseed cake.
And then we bitch. Sophia had told me before that these women were deeply faithful but their faith butted up against the same things mine did: the Church stances on issues related to women, whether that meant our lack of leadership roles or the idea that birth control was always wrong. Earlier that week, I’d gone to daily Mass, something usually impossible given my teaching schedule, but it was the feast of Mary Magdalene so I’d made the extra effort. I tell these women that while Father Mellow did a nice little homily about her, it bothered me that it wasn’t delivered by a woman; after all, wasn’t Mary Magdalene a leader in the early church? “Of course she was,” Agnes replies. And that leads to another conversation about why women aren’t seen as leaders, even in a modern church where women in the surrounding secular world can run corporations, families, and countries just fine. And I think, yes. There has been something missing from this experience of Catholicism that I’ve plunged into to such a surprising depth. It’s the women.
I have three sisters, all of whom possess what their husbands politely refer to as “big” personalities. Family gatherings usually consist of a lot of women talking over one another, often at near-deafening volume. Oakes women are not exactly the type to sit around waiting for some man to tell them what to do, perhaps because our father was cowed by having so many daughters and spent many nights attempting, and failing, to get us to follow orders. We all work, and we all work our asses off. We all married guys who have to put up with us, and we don’t exactly follow orders: we give them. The men in our lives are pretty good about meeting us halfway, but sometimes I feel bad for them, including my brother and father. It’s like a tidal wave of estrogen and cursing hit them and they just have to keep paddling to stay afloat.
So the masculine hierarchy of the Church, and its repeated failure to open its doors to the voices of some very powerful theological thinkers who happen to be female, has always felt like a foreign environment. However, I like a challenge, and while one is not exactly encouraged to shout back protests during the Mass when the priest slips up and says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (that should be “blessed is the ONE who comes, not HE”—Hello, do you SEE all these women in the pews, dude?), the occasionally bossy and frequently ignorant things the big C Church says about women give me something to struggle against and educate myself about. It’s like politics for liberals. Republicans and Tea Partiers may repulse us, but oppositional sides have their purpose. They give us something to struggle against.
I regularly direct prayers at Mary Magdalene, Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, and other kick-ass intercessors, so women have been in my faith life, but this is the first time I’ve ever sat on a hard couch in a dim apartment with them talking about what the Church should look like and what it could be. There’s a reason that female Christian mystics specialized in visions. Women are good at constructing scenarios, whether in the books we write or the dream lives we drift into while conscious or unconscious. These women in the room are talking about everything: people in their own lives who are suffering, global poverty, local politics, the homily delivered at Mass. But they are doing it all through a lens focused not on how everything is broken, but on ways to repair it all.
After Christ died, we know that the Church, such as it was, was small. People knew one another intimately and held Masses in one another’s homes, or in caves, or any place where they could worship away from the prying eyes of Roman authority. And from the Acts of the Apostles we also know that many of the leaders and participants in these small communities were women. Thus the pray-and-bitch group hearkens back to the earliest days of the Church. Today in many large parishes, like ours, there is little to no connection happening between the people in the pews. Sure, you may see the same people every week, but no conversation occurs beyond “Peace be with you.” The idea of community is highly elusive, and before I sat with these women, the idea of finding a feminist Catholic community seemed like a joke.
In a Catholic Mass, there’s a part called “Prayers of the Faithful.” The lector gets up and asks people what they want to pray for. Usually, this ends up being some mishmash of social justice issues: poverty, the recession, war, famine, and so on. And sometimes people get personal, asking the church to pray for a dying parent or a sick child. In the years I’ve attended Mass, I’ve only heard someone pray “for the culture of life” once, and it took me a minute to understand what they were talking about: abortion and euthanasia. As we all know, the Vatican takes a pretty hard line on both of those issues, and it’s one of the chief reasons for the attrition of many liberal Catholics. But one of the rather open secrets about Catholicism is that plenty of Catholics don’t toe the line as hard as the Vatican does. Each Catholic examines her conscience, and if her conscience says that an abortion done to save the life of the mother keeps at least one person alive, or if a condom worn by a guy with AIDS keeps AIDS from spreading, or if a cancer-racked body needs to depart the world painlessly, then so be it. The God we believe in, after all, is a God of mercy and compassion.
This was reinforced at a daylong retreat in the Northern California mountains I went to just before meeting the pray-and-bitch ladies. At dinnertime, I was sitting next to a woman in her sixties. She was a psychiatric intake nurse in a large public hospital in San Francisco, an unbelievably tough job in a city with a large population of homeless people, many of whom struggle with untreated mental illness and drug addiction. We got to talking about the difficulties of being married while working high-stress jobs, and when she asked me if I had kids, I braced myself for the textbook Catholic reaction:
You’re supposed to have kids! God gave you a uterus! But when I said, “No, I’ve never felt a calling to motherhood,” she nodded and said, “Me neither. And aren’t we blessed to live in a time when we have that choice?” Momentarily, I glanced around to make sure we were still on a Catholic retreat, and then gave her a grateful smile.
But not every Catholic woman is that compassionate and open-minded. There is an elderly woman who shows up now and then at daily Masses at my parish, who was there on the feast day of Mary Magdalene. During the prayers of the faithful, she tends to shout, not speak. And she always shouts the same thing: “Let us pray for an END to abortion.” And I always cough. The problem is not that she believes what she believes—whether I agree or not, she is entitled to her opinion—the problem is that she yells it in a quiet church when people are trying to hear God, not a cranky person with a vendetta.
That’s the primary problem with the more vocal and occasionally violent wing of the pro-life movement. Rather than approaching the issue with any modicum of compassion or understanding for the women who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy, rather than listening to what reasonable, well-educated people have to say on the topic, they scream and damn them to Hell. I don’t believe that most women look forward to having abortions or treat them in any sort of cavalier manner; there should probably be fewer of them, because there should also be greater access to birth control and sex education, especially for women who live in poverty.
Excerpted from Radical Reinvention, by Kaya Oakes
KAYA OAKES is the author of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, the poetry collection Telegraph, and cofounder of Kitchen Sink, winner of the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Magazine. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in Oakland.