Sarah James, a biracial Indian American woman of color, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and founder of Clerestory Magazine.
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‘The Dinner Party’ Reminds Us of What Patriarchy Erased
IN RATTLING THOSE DRY BONES: Women Changing the Church, activist and author Susan Cole writes an essay in response to the question, Why do I remain in the church? In her answer, she shares how she healed her relationship with God through the figure of Sophia, who she defines as “the Wisdom of God, the divine imaged as female.” Cole writes, “Through [Sophia] I have discovered in a whole new way, divine presence within myself, within my sisters, within all that is.” Cole’s portrait of a female God, filled with kindness and joy, stands in stark contrast to the millennia of androcentrism that shapes Christian teaching and practice. The treasure of the Christian female godhead remains buried, but it can be uncovered.
Sophia sits (metaphorically) at artist Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” the famed feminist installation anchored by an enormous triangular banquet table, 48 feet long on each side. From 1974 to 1979, Chicago scrupulously created unique, historically precise place settings for 39 “guests of honor,” female figures both mythical and historical, ranging from Mother Earth to Georgia O’Keeffe. An additional 999 names appear written on tiles surrounding the table. According to Brooklyn Museum curators, at Chicago’s table Sophia stands as a powerful “creative force in the universe” and a cross-cultural symbol of a female God. And the elements of Sophia’s place setting — a flower plate with watery petals and a runner made from remnants of a wedding veil — symbolize Christianity’s role in “the downfall of female power, particularly religious power.” On a grand scale, “The Dinner Party” reminds us of what patriarchy has erased.
Embracing Embodiment with Julian of Norwich
JULIAN OF NORWICH, the 14th-century anchoress and mystic in England, prayed for an embodied understanding of suffering. As she wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, she desired “three graces” from God: “to relive Christ’s Passion”; “bodily sickness”; and the wounds of “contrition,” “kind compassion,” and “purposeful longing for God.” At age 30, on what she presumed to be her deathbed, Julian received a series of divine visions — equally euphoric and terrifying — that taught her about the all-encompassing nature and nearness of God’s love. In one vision, Julian saw Christ’s head bleeding profusely from the crown of thorns.
But these images did not bring her a message of despair. Julian wrote, “This is our Lord’s will: that we yearn and believe, rejoice and delight, take comfort and console ourselves as much as we can, with his help and his grace, until the time when we can see it truly for ourselves.” Through pain and contemplation, she developed a deeply embodied faith. Reading her work healed years of spiritual pain for me. In the Catholic context of my upbringing, shame led to disembodiment and antagonism toward my body. Julian, by contrast, envisioned human wholeness — in mind, body, and soul.
Drawing Out the Infinite in the Infinitesimal
THERE'S A REFORM JEWISH Sabbath prayer that reads, “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”
If we want to experience awe or wonder, we need to reach for inputs of wisdom that enliven our ways of seeing. As a person who struggles with overthinking and anxiety, I find visual art, like the work of Latvian American artist Vija Celmins, to be instructive. “The thing I like about painting, of course,” Celmins said in an interview with the Tate museum, “is that it takes just a second for the information to go ‘bam,’ all the way in, and then you can explore it later.” Engaging with Celmins’ work teaches me how to pay close attention to the life in front of me, noticing the beauty that pervades everything.
The 11-Foot Puppet Traveling ’Round the World
LITTLE AMAL, an 11-foot-tall puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, is the star of “The Walk,” a live public production to honor millions of displaced children in the world. Named after the Arabic word for “hope,” Amal took her first steps at the Turkey-Syria border in July 2021. Since then, she’s traversed more than 5,500 miles in 13 different countries to share a poignant plea: “Don’t forget about us.”
Four puppeteers help Amal walk. One person sits inside her torso, visible through a cage, to operate her face, head, and feet; two move her hands with external rods; and one offers balance support from behind. Amal towers over the crowds who greet her, and the enormous space she occupies sends a powerful message: Forced displacement is an urgent and collective responsibility. The Walk embodies compassion, care, welcome, and belonging — core principles of Christianity. Amal, who has more than 170,000 followers on Instagram, has become a well-recognized humanitarian symbol, reminding us that displaced people are not “aliens” or “strangers.” They are our siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and friends.
Reclaiming Advent as the Season of the Midwife
IN THE EIGHTH season of Call the Midwife, set in post-war east London, nuns and nurse midwives of Nonnatus House assist a woman with severe complications from a “backstreet” abortion. Sister Julienne says to a young nurse, “The word ‘midwife’ means ‘with-woman.’ A woman in that situation needs somebody by her side.”
I’m pro-choice, which was an unpopular stance in the Catholic community I grew up in. For my views on reproductive rights, people in youth group called me a “baby killer” and “Pontius Pilate.” During Advent, specifically, I loathed the hollow teachings on Mary and childbirth. We sanitized the Nativity into a cute story — the equivalent of a Disney movie featuring a white family and a manger crowded with men. Only recently did I learn that some scholars believe that midwives attended Jesus’ birth. As reproductive freedom and care are further undermined in the United States, this is an apt time to reclaim a more feminist view of the Nativity and rethink Advent as the season of the midwife.
Seeking God’s Wisdom Through ‘Visio Divina’
AT THE START of the war in Ukraine, images overwhelmed me. Families crowding onto trains. Teachers holding assault weapons. Nigerian students being held at the border. The clash of human tenderness with extraordinary aggression was arresting. In between checking updates from a friend—an art curator sheltering in Kyiv—Instagram suggested I follow Lviv-based contemporary icon artist Ivanka Demchuk. With fears of global annihilation humming in my head, Demchuk’s fresh, calming pieces, such as “Annunciation” and “Sophia the Wisdom of God,” captivated my attention and softened the edges of my growing despair.
In recent years, Lviv has become a hub of Christian sacred art technique and production. Lviv National Academy of Arts, from which Demchuk graduated, teaches icon creation, sacred space decoration, and icon theology. For centuries, icons helped make Christianity accessible to illiterate populations. But today, it strikes me that we need this life-giving artform in new ways. We are inundated with photographs of violence, from destruction in Ukraine to police brutality in our neighborhoods. Jesus Christ, our Wounded Healer, taught his disciples how to see injustice and move toward it. How can we, as Christian people committed to justice, cultivate these twinned capacities—seeing clearly and seeking social healing—within ourselves?