By Margaret Wolff
INTERACTIVE WITH THE SPIRIT
I’ve been searching for God for most of my life in one way, in one form or another. I write about women’s spirituality, lead transformational retreats for women, and am an art therapist. I’ve literally made God my business. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to grow “The Magic,” the immanent, intimate, purposeful expression of the Divine within my own heart and the heart of the world.
I was raised in a religion that did it’s best to convince me God was a distant patriarch who expected total obedience to His laws. “The Magic” is a fluid presence. She – for She is indeed a feminine presence – is tender, playful and encouraging as well as whip smart and unwavering; an unseen yet steady guide and companion I came to know in my twelfth year. Given my upbringing, I was nothing short of astonished to discover in my twenties that “The Magic,” my Magic, was the Universal Mother, the feminine face of God. Until that moment, I had no idea God could be a woman.
From that point on, I read everything I could about Her. I prayed. I meditated. I listened for Her, to Her, in the small moments and epic events of my life, in others, in the teachings of all religions. I had no doubt She would show up. (She is, after all, Omnipresent!) All I had to do is improve my ability to recognize Her.
Over the years, one of the many books I turn to for inspiration is the Bhagavad Gita, a time-honored classic of spiritual literature that is an evocative blueprint for living the spiritual life. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, an embattled Indian prince, his efforts to rise above the ferment that prods the soul to reign in its native purity and nobility. Though Arjuna’s ishta (the Sanskrit word for “cherished Divinity”) is different than mine, his questions and doubts mirror the travails of my spiritual journey. I take comfort in the Gita’s mystical verse.
To help readers understand the undreamed-of possibilities that lie within us – the breadth and depth and dominion of our soul – Vyasa, the Gita’s author, describes the limitless nature of the soul in a profusion of poetic metaphors. This elegant array of our divine potential appeals to me both as a writer and as a seeker.
But one of Vyasa’s metaphors, that the soul is “the manliness in men,” gave me considerable pause, particularly as someone who is wrapped in the heart of the Divine Feminine. “Wait a minute, here,” I said! “The manliness in men?” My emotional reaction led me straight into the presence of the fourteen legendary women I interviewed for my book, In Sweet Company: Conversations With Extraordinary Women About Living A Spiritual Life (Jossey-Bass):
Feminist pioneer Riane Eisler; Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis; social justice activists Sister Helen Prejean, Zainab Salbi, and Le Ly Hayslip; spiritual leaders Sri Daya Mata, Reverend Lauren Artress, Rabbi Laura Geller, and Grandmother Twyla Hurd Nitsch; leadership doyenne Margaret J. Wheatley; dancer Katherine Dunham; Gestalt therapist Miriam Polester; Fullbright scholar Alma Flor Ada; and Mother-of-the-Year Gail Williamson.
I clearly saw that – individually and en masse – these soulful women embody what Vyasa may well have referred to as “manliness.” Their manliness, however, not only transcends gender identification, it transcends the specificities of path, age, ethnicity, race, and profession – the external demarcations of “me and mine” that separate us from each other and separate us from the unity of our soul.Their manliness appears not just in them, but also in “everyday” women: the women I meet in the retreats I lead and in my colleagues and friends; in women everywhere. Just as “manliness” is not limited to gender, it is not dependent on a public presence.
The following list of these women's “manly” qualities, qualities they manifest or consciously strive to manifest, is by no means scientific or absolute. My data is experiential and intuitive. My classifications are organic. They overlap. They flow. Here’s what it comes down to:
- The women of In Sweet Company honor their feelings and acknowledge their humanity. They understand that their limitations and vulnerabilities are stepping-stones to spiritual transformation, that they are greater than the sum of their flaws and their mistakes: They are a work in progress.
- They accept there are things they may never understand and aspire to become comfortable with that mystery. They watch for revelation and opportunities for reparation. They let things unfold over time. This letting go fosters humility, authenticity, and compassion. Having walked in their own shoes, they are better able to walk in ours. Their vulnerability is a great source of their strength. As the eminent Gestalt therapist Miriam Polster told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. After all, we have to start somewhere.”
- The women of In Sweet Company are rip-roaring bold. They push the edge of the envelope. They search out, speak up and stand in their truth even when that truth is hard to face. But they do not impose their truth on others. They establish boundaries for themselves that insure their well-being.
- They are not afraid of change. They have grit – and awe and wonder – on their side. Their willingness to be open to the many ways Spirit moves through them and the world – in shadow and in light – is a great source of their wisdom. As Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking” told me, “Surrender has a lot to do with saying ‘yes’ to the Big Adventure, not acquiescing or giving up.”
- The women of In Sweet Company see connections. They see relationships rather than separateness, similarities rather than differences. They appreciate the diversity of human experience while choosing what speaks to their own needs. They are present to others; are emotionally and intellectually generous. They share themselves and help others succeed. They link success and accomplishment to the Greater Good. This kinship is a great source of their passion and joy. As Riane Eisler, author of “The Chalice and the Blade” told me, “If you change your relationships toward the direction of partnership, the beliefs that guided this behavior support other partnerships.”
- The women of In Sweet Company cultivate a personal, interactive relationship with Spirit. They make time for the God of their hearts. They court silence and stillness in meditation, in prayer, in Nature, in solitary time, because this takes them into the presence of their God. They do not dissipate their energy “fixing” or “rescuing,” thinking that this is what gives them value. They take care of themselves because this expands their ability to feel God’s presence and authentically serve others. Their interior life is a great source of their love. As Sri Daya Mata, past president of Paramahansa Yogananda’s organization, Self-Realization Fellowship, told me,“My God is both personal and impersonal. Though in His infinite nature He is formless and all-pervading, I have come to have a relationship with God that is so close, so sweet, so profound and blissful, that it is deeply personal.”
That said I no longer take issue with Vyasa’s words. It’s not what I call the genderless soul that matters to me, it’s that I call on my soul, that I use my life to lift what veils my soul’s strength and beauty so I can, like Arjuna, come to reign in its native purity and nobility. This is why I write and teach.
To learn more about Margaret’s work, please visit her website, In Sweet Company.