The Female Election

After writing about Barbie making an election, and in general with questions I’m asking about myself and my life, together with conversations with my own spiritual director, I have been thinking a lot about my own election. I made my election, my choice for a way of life a few months before I did The Spiritual Exercises and it was confirmed during the Exercises. I wasn’t aware at the time I was making an election, just wrestling with life, which to be honest, is a regular state of affairs, but in the conversation with my director he asked a very rare, and very deliberate closed question:

This sounds to me that you are making an election here. Is that what you are doing? Are you making an election?

I was already training to be a spiritual director so he knew I knew what it meant. My director very rarely asks closed questions like this and if he notices he has, he reframes the question to make it more open. Not here though: this felt deliberate and as such, I knew it was important. No matter what I answered here, yes or no, it would change my life. A denial would not be honest and would be a turning away from what I was being called to, and admitting it would (and did) bring about an avalanche that turned my world upside down. It’s not my intention here to go into the nitty gritty details of my own election, simply to offer a contemplation of the choices of a way of life from the female perspective. As with the Barbie post, yes, men do make elections and here, I am reflecting on the choices from the position of female as norm.

The featured image on this post is a photograph I created after being inspired by a Vanitas/Memento Mori painting in the Kelvingrove Art gallery in Glasgow about six months after I returned from The Exercises. I don’t remember the name of the artist or the painting, but I was captivated by it. In an interesting convergance, it was that very day that I came down with glanduar fever which first triggered the ME/CFS I experience now. I can relate that to something in my experience of The Exercises – maybe I will write about it another time. Up until today, I have never explained what this picture is about to anyone other than my art teacher/artist friend and my director.

The first thing to notice is the darkness surrounding the image, and how difficult it is to see some aspects around the edges. It is intentional; to suggest that our choice for a way of life emerges from a lack of vision and clarity, and even from the darkness of the “wrong” choices we make on our journey to get there. To go back to how Barbie describes election:

Not someone I become, but who I discover I am.

Barbie, The Barbie Movie

When my attention was drawn to the painting in the Kelvingrove, my art teacher/artist friend was unenamoured by it. I told her the painting was about sex and she asked me increduously:

How are you getting sex from that?

So I explained. My photo is also about sex on the surface, but like the painting that inspired it, it is about so much more than that. So let’s look at the details more closely, moving from left to right, bearing in mind that the picture is a contemplation – lots of questions, but not necessarily answers.

In the original painting in the art gallery, there was a set of armour, sword(s) and a half open jewellery box with pearl beads pouring out of it. In the language of memento mori, such things represented power and wealth and the images are inherently masculine and patriarchal, with the allusions to war and “ownership” of women. Here in my photo, I have used a corset and high black leather high heels as symbols of female sexual power. The riding crop and whip serve as replacements for the swords in the original painting and further emphasise female sexual power by their explicit reference to sexual bondage and the image of the dominatrix. The rope and chains drive that image home. The ropes and chains are also representative of what binds and enslaves us, be it patriarchy, sin etc. – fill in the gaps here for yourself. In the first instance, the question or intention is to subvert male power and to put the female in control of her election, it is not a choice to be made in submission to patriarchal authority.

The rose in this part of the image symbolises two things. The first is eternal life. This is a motif used by Seiger Koder, an artist whose work I love. The second is romantic love – the secular understanding of a red rose. The rose is facing away, to the back, which suggests that the meaning is perverted or negated; this is not eternal life or romantic love. To the right of this section there is a bottle of erotic oil, a glass bauble with red fractured glass and a purse spilling out thirty pieces of silver. The oil is reminiscent of the woman of ill repute in scripture anointing Jesus’s feet while he dined with the pharisees. Is this an erotic act? In the film Pulp Fiction, the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson characters spend some time at the beginning of the film arguing about whether their gangster boss beating someone for massaging his wife’s feet was or was not an overreaction.

NB: There is a lot of swearing in this scene, so if you are sensitive or offended by such, please don’t watch it.

The appropriateness of it is open to question. And there is also the implict understanding that when Mary anointed Jesus feet at the last supper, that she was anointing him for death. The red in the image is symbolic of desire and the black of sin and death. The bauble is standing in for a bubble, which in the language of Vanitas means something transient, temporary, short lived and the fractured red glass is suggesting the fragility of our desires, especially sexual desire, and their incoherent and unintegrated nature. The thirty pieces of silver of course, represent betrayal with their implicit reference to Judas Iscariot, but in the context of everything else in the image, they suggest prostitution, a women selling her body, trading in her sexuality for material gain. This part of the image speaks about a certain type of woman or the sexuality of all women, and how woman are judged and criticised in the patriarchy for being the “wrong sort of woman” whether they are or are not. How many women reading have been called those names, and by men (and other women) in the church? I know I have. This part of the picture is about female sexuality, where we are strong, where it is used against us, where we are betrayed by it, even possibly by our own sexual desire.

The central part of the photo provides the counterpoint. The triangulation of the purse spilling out the thirty pieces of silver, the broken pestle and mortar and the key on the pillow raises the question of marriage. In memento mori language, a key on a pillow symbolises marriage. They key is held by a red ribbon, red again being symbolic of desire. I suggested earlier that the purse and the money pointed to betrayal, so the proximity of these items in the overall picture is to question the betrayal of marriage with respect to women. In our not so distant past – and still with some in the present – the dictat was that the husband “owned” the wife; he kept her and she served and obeyed him. It is in the traditional marriage vows a woman might take in the church. The purpose of the woman was to secure a good husband, where the emphasis of “good” was around material wealth. It was only in the year after I moved to England that it became legally possible for a man to be accused and tried for raping his wife. The pestle and mortar represent male and female. The empty mortar suggests female virginity – something to aspire to (although that’s a contradiction in itself) but not for too long: wife and mother is the ultimate suggested reality for women. The broken pestle may be suggestive of a broken patriarchy, although it was not what I intended when I created the photo. It was more to represent the rejection of sexual relationships with men and with it the rejection of marriage, and to present an alternative choice of celibacy in this image. Women rejecting marriage is on the increase I hear and I acknowledge that in my contemporary culture at least, there is a wider range of choice open to woman, but again, not without its pressures. I read something a long time ago that stuck in my mind. It was in praise of convents and the religious life because historically they offered a woman a respectable and acceptable alternative to marriage. Marriage is one of the key choices to be made in the election.

There are some things which fall under unchangeable election, such as are the priesthood, marriage, etc. There are others which fall under an election that can be changed, such as are to take benefices or leave them, to take temporal goods or rid oneself of them.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola translated by Elder Mullan

For a woman, to marry is a huge social pressure point: the church tells us we should, Disney tells us we should, the fairy stories tell us we should, Rom Coms, the whole of society tells us we should. But what if we were to say no? The traditional choices as presented when I was growing up were to marry or become a nun. The latter was not the desirable choice and held the unspoken undercurrent that it was a waste of a life. It might even have been spoken out on occasions, it was definitely a palpable opinion.

Also on the pillow or cushion is a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It is the actual book that was given to each of us as a gift when we had completed The Exercises. It is open on the page of the election and represents the choice being made. The open padlock on the pillow is suggestive of freedom – the freedom from those chains and ropes that bind us in some form of slavery, and the freedom to be who God is calling us to be.

The positioning of the guitar at this point was inspired by a set of classical guitar music books I have that line up a guitar with a woman lying down.

The positioning of it behind the marriage cushion is to make the often made link between “wife and mother” with the implication of roundness in the abdomenal area. Again, questions around the choices and societal positions of women around childbirth. Even this issue of reproduction was raised in the Barbie movie and in Barbie’s election.

Before looking at the last section of the photo, I just want to connect the structure of the image in a similar way as I did when I was looking at the Ecstasy of St. Francis by Caravaggio. In the Positive Penance post I likened the downward movement to a deconstruction of our false self and the upward movement as a reconstruction, bringing us closer to our true self in God. In Caravaggio’s image, the gaze of Francis is to God, even though his eyes are shut. In my photo, the counterpoint is in The Spritual Exercises, specifically in The Election. It is where the movement changes from deconstruction of the false self on the left to reconstruction of the true self in God on the right of the image. So, let’s look in more detail at the elements on the right hand section of the photo.

The sunflower is opposite the backward facing rose with the purpose of opposing it. It is upright and is facing forward, the “right” way. The sunflower symbolises devotion, and it’s uprightness and forwardness indcates that it is the intended meaning, rather than inversion or perversion. The intention is that it is devotion to God. It is beginning to open, suggestive of awakening. Sunflower is also, obviously, one of my spiritual alter egos and was the name I was called by in many (but not all) of the imagnitive contemplations I did during The Exercises. It’s inclusion here for me is personal and intimate, and by extension, The Election is personal and intimate for everyone who makes it. The white vase, the holding vessel, symbolises the purity of the intention with which the choice is made when the conversation throughout the process is with God. The page is a copy of the front page of the Exercises, which emphasises this process and that it is for the greater glory of God. The necklace is on a purple ribbon which reaches back to the open page on the pillow. The purple signifies suffering, or the price of discipleship, which is the theme that develops more deeply through the third week of the Exercises after the Election is made as we walk with Jesus through His passion and death. We begin to understand a bit more deeply the meaning of our undertaking. The necklace is an image used in The Song of Songs to mean the yoke of God and it is in this picture a spiral, which I visualise as one path leading more deeply into God. The image of the spiral path is one of the central themes in my mandalas.

The skull represents contemplation in memento mori art, and this one I have and use in my Vanitas photos has roses on it. I said earlier that I am using the rose as a symbol of eternal life, inspired by the artwork of Seider Koder, so this skull in my Vanitas photos means contemplative prayer. The books it sits on are previous diaries of mine – they represent “before” in this image. Obviously there are many personal details of my life in those books that have led me to this point. The book on top of the diaries is an old illustrated bible history I found when I was a child around the age of seven years old and I kept. I remember it clearly as a touchstone experience. The upright book behind the skull is a blank notebook of the type I use for my diaries. It is the new way of being after The Election, that is yet to be written.

The candle represents the soul, and here it is on fire. The “hour glass” (actually minutes) represents time, eternity, the fleeting moments of this mortal life and God time, which to my understanding is every moment all at once. The wine represents everything that we are familiar with: the covenant with God and in the language of the mystics, spiritual wisdom. The glass I have used here was a gift from a friend and it has my name etched onto it. Again, The Election is our own personal covenant with God. Part of the rope from the bindings on the other side of the photo appears here, and the meaning in the context of the items on this side of the picture is freedom from what enslaves us.

To take in the image as a whole then is to recognise that the choices of a way of life for women are loaded with expectations and judgements that may pressure us one way or another to live lives where we are not being our authentic selves because we have absorbed the limitations that patriarchal institutions and society have placed on us. The Exercises and the Election contained within allow us the sacred space to have the conversation with God about who we are in Him, who He is calling us to be (not necessarily do), or in the immortal words of Barbie:

Not someone I become, but who I discover I am.

Barbie, The Barbie Movie

My photo is my visual expression of that journey and my experiences of the pressures to be a particular way as a woman in the society in which I live. The point of the election, the moment when you understand who you are is the most liberating feeling in the world because you can confidently put down everything that is not you. There may be painful changes to be made as a result but His yoke is indeed light.

Praying with Images: Maunday Thursday

Each day, up to and including Easter Sunday, I will post an image with a more generic guided prayer for praying with images to use in this great climax to Holy Week. I will also post a Lectio Divina for Sunday. It did not feel appropriate at this point to present prayer on Sunday’s scripture, as I would usually do. I have also used different background music for this prayer, as befits the grace of sorrow for this Holy Week.

Praying with images: guided prayer

What’s the Story?

What’s the Story? 1: Reading of this post.

As I have been contemplating this week’s post, there has been a voice in my head saying:

The stories are getting in the way!

I have thinking that this was the voice of God, and feeling a little guilty because of my resistance; I have continued to read another chapter or five of the fiction book I had picked up, or watch another couple of episodes of Grimm. I have no television, but my daughter has a Netflix account, so occasionally I succumb when I am tired, stressed or ill. I try to keep it to films, because they are complete within themselves, and box sets lure me in and I become immersed in them. I am the same way with fiction, so I usually save that kind of reading for the holidays. I bought three fiction books last weekend and I have already read two of them and the holidays have only begun. Oops.

As I was making breakfast the other morning, and thinking about the post I was trying to write and not feeling it flow, again I heard the voice:

The stories are getting in the way! You are never going to get your post written, you have nothing to say.

I noticed how jarring the voice was, how critical: water on a stone. And then I listened for the softer, gentler, more loving sound, the drop of water on the sponge.

The stories you have engaged with are about stories. It is all about the story.

What’s the Story? 2: Reading of this post.

So here is a different post to the one I had planned to write. I loved fairy tales when I was a child, and I was a voracious reader. The Grimm’s tales haunted me, they were indeed grim, with their darkness, coldness and cruelty. One time when I was talking to my spiritual director about getting lost in a book, he asked me what kind of books drew me? Rather than criticise myself for being distracted by the story, it was more to notice what it was that attracted me to what I was reading, or watching. I thought about it and realised that I was drawn to fantasy and it was about swords, magic and dragons. The fantasy genre typically has an underdog, often with unknown or hidden – even from themselves – identity, with supernatural powers, who ends up becoming a saviour, a hero. In my preferred stories, there is some moral ambiguity, something to wrestle with – the villains have redeeming qualities and the heroes have weaknesses.

I notice the parallels: a poor baby born in a stable – the underdog; the supernatural power – the miracles of Jesus; in Celtic spirituality, dragons accompanied God, so here, disciples; and of course the sword that pierced His side, or even the sword as symbol for the cross. In my mind there is always the mystery, the question – did Jesus always know His identity or was it something He had to grow into? In my prayer experience of the second week of the exercises, it was something He discovered, but I am not trained in theology, so I am not offering that as an answer, simply a description of my prayer experience.

In the book I have just finished, Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor, there is a key turning point where our hero, Lazlo Strange, a lowly librarian with a very vivid imagination and dreams, steps out of himself in a heartfelt plea to the warrior strangers to take him with them to the land he has always dreamt of, and where they are from. The recommendation he makes for himself, much to the palpable disapproval of his society is:

I know a lot of stories.

His words had come spilling out in answer to his own question:

Who am I ? What do I have to offer?

His self doubt came rushing in as soon as the words left his mouth: his adversary laughed, but the head of the warriors did not. They took Lazlo with them.

As a spiritual director, I listen to other people telling me their story, and it is the story of their own relationship with God. I listen for where He is moving and working in their stories, for where there is connection and transformation in response to that connection. I also listen out for the touch of that opposed to God, the critical voice, the self doubt; where the volition is to disrupt, to spoil and to slow down the movement towards God, in an effort to reverse it completely. I am aware when I am listening that it is not my story, but nevertheless, when I recognise the presence of God in the story of the person in front of me, it moves me and quite literally brings me out in goosebumps.

No, I tell you this because I was told to tell it – by what you might call ‘ a higher authority’ – and truth is, the thought of how to tell it has taxed me for so many years.

Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers

As for my own story, I am telling of it here, in these pages. My tales are infused with my prayer and lived experience of God: the images I think in all tell of my history with Him as it has built up and ingrained itself in my memory. It is also His story, because He is at the centre of it, He is the reason for it.

And so to “the reason for the season”, as a popular caption appears at this time every year, it is part of His story, retold at Carol services, school nativity plays, at church every year. The Incarnation – His story, His intervention in our world. It is easy to grow cynical and bored with the familiar, to allow the commercialisation of Christmas to distract from and corrupt what is there at the heart of it. I remember one Christmas when I was a teenager I decided not to “do Christmas” because I felt it to be commercialised and that it had lost its meaning. It was honestly the worst Christmas I have ever experienced, because even though I sang the carols and went to mass, I had missed the whole point: love, plain and simply, love. My family had respected my rebellion and had not expected any presents from me, or complained about the lack thereof, but they had not responded in kind: they gave gifts as they would have, unconditionally, and did not alter their behaviour in any way. I was moved by their generous response to my rebellion and I was miserable. If you really do not believe that it is better to give than to receive, try not giving in one of those places where we are encouraged to stop and remember those we love especially, and notice how it feels. For me, it did not feel like an emotional blackmail at my failure to conform to social convention, it felt like a missed opportunity. No more Grinch for me.

What’s the Story? 3: Reading of this post.

The story of the Incarnation illustrates the generosity of God: He does not hold back in His gift giving. One of my friends once told me that at mass, she had had the sense that God was listening to His story being told and that He loves it: He never tires of hearing us tell it. It reminds me of the scene from The Shack, where during dinner Mack has been telling the Holy Trinity about his family, and he comments that God knows all of this anyway. Sarayu (The Holy Spirit) replies by saying words to the effect of:

Yes, but we like to see it through your eyes.

In Ignatian Spirituality, one of the great gifts to prayer is imaginative contemplation. To enter into scripture as if we were there, to bring God into our bodies as it were, allows us to participate in God’s story and allows God to participate in our story in a way that is up close and personal. By using our memory and imagination, the first power of the soul, the story becomes real within us: it is no fantasy. God moves from being transcendent to being intimate, He comes alive within us. My story becomes His story, and His story becomes my story. It is the story of the Incarnation. To share our stories with each other is relationship and it is as true for God as is it for our family and friends. Far from getting in the way, stories draw us in, and God is to be found in the story.