The Common Good
May-June 1999

Reconcilable Values

by Jo Ann Heydron | May-June 1999

Living a contemplative a feminist life.

In her new book, At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Carol Lee Flinders identifies four seemingly insurmountable conflicts between feminist thought and spiritual practice. Consider these tenets of meditative spirituality: find a quiet place and turn inward; still the mind, especially the ego; put others first, don’t squander energy protecting self-interest; and resist distracting physical compulsions. Now contrast them with four analogous feminist imperatives: claim your world ("Take back the streets!"); know who you are and make yourself heard; identify your needs and get them met; enjoy your body, refuse objectification.

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The "feelings of personal sovereignty" that feminism can awaken are essential to any lasting religious commitment. Likewise, women need the reserves of strength discoverable in spiritual practice to challenge attitudes and institutions that devalue them. Yet the means to achieving "self" on the one hand and connection to God on the other seem to be in direct conflict.

Flinders had for many years kept her interest in feminism in the background of her busy life. She is a co-author of the cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen, author of Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, among other works, and the mother of a son. Her professional training in medieval literature and her longtime residence in a meditation community in Northern California led her to teach both university classes in mystical literature and weekend seminars on meditation. In these two venues she discovered an inchoate but powerful discomfort in women students. Young women at the university sometimes avoided discussing burning issues, taking elaborate care to avoid offending male colleagues, and the older, working mothers in her meditation seminars had far more difficulty than their husbands figuring out how to wring even a half-hour quiet time out of their days. Spiritually hungry, they turned away from what might satisfy them.

Flinders found that her students’ difficulties drew to the surface her own awareness of women’s devaluation. The abduction and murder of Polly Klaas in Flinders’ home town brought up other instances of violence against women close to her that she had tried to think of as particular rather than systemic. Like a muscle "sore from continual strain and misuse," her own awareness of the contempt in which women are held in our culture "was hot to the touch."

Flinders briefly considers the historical forces that have created the "othering" of women. While institutional religion has played an important role in codifying misogyny, religion has also for centuries been a primary area in which women reached for integrity. Teresa of Avila, for example, "insisted on the rights of nuns to change confessors, and Clare of Assisi was unyielding in her refusal to accept any Rule of her order but the one she herself had drawn up."

PERHAPS BECAUSE Flinders’ own teacher was raised in a matrilineal Hindu family in India, Flinders is able to offer fascinating examples of work by contemporary Hindu women, such as the grassroots resistance to large-scale mining in the Garwhal region of the lower Himalayas. Flinders calls the local women protesting the mining "satyagrahis." Following Gandhi, they are empowered to act by fiercely clinging to the truth that all life is one.

Flinders also surveys "the girls’ movement," work being done in and out of schools in response to the 1991 publication of Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, by the American Association of University Women, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), and many other recent works. Both lay people and professionals, including Flinders’ husband, schoolteacher Tim Flinders, are trying to address the dampening of ambition and desire and the falling silent "of lively nonstop talkers" that occur with frightening regularity when girls are about 12. Facilitators of "circles" of girls try to help them strengthen rather than lose their "hold on ‘self’" during this crucial period by encouraging them to draw strength from each other and by listening carefully to their needs, dreams, and problems. Adult women involved in the movement are discovering how putting others first (a tenet of spirituality) can solidify their own identities (an aim of feminism).

Flinders earns the right to ask that "feminism thinks of itself henceforth as a resistance movement based in spirituality" by providing us with a text crowded with personal stories and wisdom, scholarship expertly assembled and interpreted, and lucidity and hope that never falter. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the work she has done. —Jo Ann Heydron

JO ANN HEYDRON is a poet and fiction writer living in California.

At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst. Carol Lee Flinders. HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

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