Widening the Circle: With Prayer and Ritual Rich in Egalitarian and Feminine Symbolism, Women's Spirituality Helps One Half of the Human Race to Find God in the Moments of Their Everyday Lives-From Burping a Baby to Balancing the Books

Article excerpt

It is Good Friday, the most solemn day in the church year and, not coincidentally, one of the busiest at Wellstreams, a women's spirituality center in Chicago. Every year the crowd grows, as word spreads about the annual Good Friday service, and this time more than 70 women are trying to squeeze chairs into a circle in the carpeted basement at the Cenacle Retreat House.

Three days later, on Easter Sunday, these women will join family and friends at churches of various denominations, but today they have chosen to remember Jesus' suffering and death with a group that is exclusively female. The fact that it was the women who remained at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday is not lost on them.

In many ways, the three-hour service is not unlike the one taking place at the Episcopal church across the street or the Catholic parish a few blocks away. The women at Wellstreams read the Passion story; they venerate the cross; and they sing, "Were You There"--although their version is noticeably higher minus the male voices.

But the tend toward soprano singing is not all that's different about this Good Friday commemoration. When the Passion is re-enacted, women play all the parts. Before passing around a Peruvian crucifix, they recall the stories of other "Good Friday people," connecting the Crucifixion to modern-day oppression. Most important, the women share their own personal stories of death and rebirth.

"We go deeper than simply acknowledging the sorrow of what happened on that day so many years ago," says Annette Cashman, who is Catholic and belongs to a suburban Chicago parish. "It's different hearing Jesus' words coming out of a woman's mouth. The voluntary sharing also would not happen in the traditional church, and it makes it more meaningful."

The intimacy of the circle provides a safe space for women to share life's joys and pains. No one is forced to speak, and everyone listens attentively--without offering advice. During the sharing, the women lament broken relationships, express fear as they go through transitions, vent frustrations with institutions, and share insights gleaned from little, everyday moments.

Seeing the sacred in ordinary life is a hallmark of women's spirituality, says Barbara Flynn, a Catholic laywoman who co-founded Wellstreams 10 years ago. "For too long traditional spirituality has seen God as up there and out there," she says. "Feminine spirituality sees God's presence right in the midst of ordinary life."

Dismantling the dichotomy that separated "ordinary" experience from "religious" experience may be one of women's spirituality's most significant contributions. While the idea that all of life is holy might seem to be a "no-brainer" today, it was a relatively radical concept to many a decade ago.

"The circles of women at Wellstreams have validated what I think women have always instinctively known," says Flynn. "Giving birth, breastfeeding a baby, holding a loved one who's dying--these were never named as religious experiences. But for many women they have been tangible paths to the sacred, direct experiences of God. And they are very gender-specific."

Round and round

That the chairs are arranged in a circle for Wellstreams programs is no accidental configuration. There is no pulpit, no podium. Those who facilitate programs sit in the circle with the other women. Power is shared. Among women's spirituality aficionados, the circle has become a graphic image of mutuality.

"We are all connected to each other, and there's no ranking or hierarchy," explains Flynn. "The circle really holds it all, and all are taken seriously, without judgment that one person's way of perceiving mystery is better than another."

The circle is also a common motif at women's spirituality gatherings sponsored by the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center (IPJC) in Seattle, which has organized two major women's convocations and coordinates and provides resources for small, parish-based groups that serve more than 5,000 women in Oregon and Washington state. …