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Finding the feminine face of God

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Traveling in Mexico

Like a busy escalator at a department store, a moving sidewalk carries pilgrims past the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the basilica in Mexico City. But when you glance up, you quickly realize you’re not at Bloomingdale’s. From a gilded frame, a woman whose hands are folded in prayer smiles down at the conglomeration of peoples who have come to see her miraculous image.

Last July, that group included 34 women and men on a tour called Goddess GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience). Led by two women religious, the 10-day pilgrimage is an exploration of ancient, indigenous feminine images of the divine. Those who lead the pilgrimage see it as a ministry designed to lead participants to a deeper understanding of divinity.

The midweek trek to Tepeyac -- the hill where Our Lady of Guadalupe is said to have appeared and, not coincidentally, an ancient holy hill of Tonantzin, the ancient Mother Goddess -- expresses for many a synthesis of Western Christian tradition and a native, woman-centered spirituality. One of the pilgrims steps off the moving sidewalk, so touched she is sobbing.

For most of the week, Jean Moore has been the life of the party. She called for periodic attitude checks (“Are we having fun yet?”) when the bus broke down and was the first to get up and dance to the music of a roving mariachi band at a restaurant.

Back in LaCrosse, Wis., Moore works with college students, and it’s not a stretch to see her fitting in with kids a few decades her junior. But this Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration also speaks softly and deeply about her spiritual search -- one that ultimately led her to religious life but coincidentally also to a life on the margins of the institutional church. She attended a Goddess GATE in 1996 and couldn’t wait to come back.

“It just opened up a whole new way of thinking for me,” said Moore. “It’s all part of my spiritual journey of trying to connect my inner self with the tradition in which I was raised.”

For Moore, as for most of the Goddess GATE pilgrims, that means investigating feminine images of the divine -- a “god who looks like me.” During their 10 days in Mexico, they would climb pyramids, learn about ancient goddesses and indigenous spirituality from guest lecturer Rosemary Radford Ruether, experiment with creative prayer and ritual, and build community with a group of diverse, yet like-minded seekers. During this, her second trip to see Our Lady of Guadalupe, Moore was overcome with emotion. “I had a powerful sense of her as goddess,” she said. “She’s not just an icon. She’s God.”

Teotihuacán, the “City of the Gods,” can be something of a tourist trap, with thousands flocking to this prehistoric Aztec city to climb its famed Great Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. But Teotihuacán has special meaning for Cecilia Corcoran, who leads the Goddess GATE program with fellow Franciscan Sr. Maria Des Jarlais. A former school teacher who also spent 10 years in Central America, Corcoran was plunged into the world of Mesoamerican goddesses when she read about murals of female figures discovered in caves near Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun.

Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect herself from the day’s blistering sun, she explained to the Goddess GATE pilgrims that archaeologists now believe that the pyramid was built to honor a beneficent goddess of creation. Many claim to feel a healing energy while trudging up the hundreds of steps to the pyramid’s pinnacle.

How a middle-aged, middle-American nun ended up in Latin America leading pilgrimages about indigenous goddesses is an interesting story, to say the least. Corcoran’s interest in feminine images of the divine coincided with her order’s formalizing its commitment to women’s spirituality.

The sisters of Perpetual Adoration opened a spirituality center in LaCrosse and urged members to find ways to help other women on their spiritual journeys. Corcoran had begun working with GATE in 1990 after its former director, a Sister of Christian Charity from Cincinnati, took ill. The first Goddess GATE was held in 1993, and the program has since become the source for Corcoran’s doctoral research, which will culminate in a documentary, guidebook and essay called “Through the Goddess GATE: A Women’s Spiritual Pilgrimage.”

“I think women today are more open to the unknown,” said the 60-year-old Corcoran. “I think they are struggling to find a way of integrating their feminine spirituality and to find affirmation of the ‘feminine face of God.’ “ She sees the Goddess GATE as a pilgrimage in the traditional sense. “As we go to the sacred sites of antiquity, we join with that sense of quest,” she said. “We are looking for a spirituality that links us with the earth and with each other.”

Surprisingly, the Goddess GATE pilgrimage often assists women discouraged with Catholicism in returning to their religious roots. “Many women find it so reassuring to retrieve that heritage that is theirs,” Corcoran said. “There’s a healing of that alienation from the cradle faith.”

That has been true in this nun’s own spiritual journey. “In this period of patriarchy, we have seen a move toward militarism and domination and the repression of the female,” she explained. In contrast, the ancient indigenous tradition offers her “themes that have been with humanity forever,” such as a connection with the earth and a feminine, “mother” image of the divine. “We have a lot to learn from these people,” she said, “both here as well as from the past.”

Nestled in between skyscrapers and just off a busy street in Mexico City, the grass-covered circular pyramid at Cuicuilco is easy to miss. But it may be the oldest and one of the most significant in all of Latin America. Archaeologists believe it is over 3,000 years old and have excavated altars at its top and a cave near the entrance at its base.

The Goddess GATE pilgrims take note of the “praying women” and pregnant goddess figures in the one-room museum, then climb to the top where they can survey much of the city. A midafternoon rain shower postpones a planned ritual to honor earth, air and fire, yet many say later that they have felt the magnetic energy for which the site is well-known.

Nearly half of the Goddess GATE pilgrims are women religious, including several from Corcoran and Des Jarlais’ order. Those participants without much exposure to contemporary nuns are amazed at their feminist sensibilities and their deep commitment to service.

Jackie McCracken, a Franciscan sister from Indianapolis, said the quest for “the feminine face of God” is both a personal and political one. “In my own personal spiritual journey, I have found it difficult to pray to a male God,” she said. “If I’m made in God’s image, it must mean the divine can manifest itself in a feminine way. We need that feminine image if women are to be empowered spiritually.”

Barb Shea, a self-described “radical lesbian Catholic” from Levittown, N.Y., said the women religious on the trip have been an inspiration to her. “If they think the goddess is OK, then it must be all right,” she said. Shea, who left the Catholic church several decades ago, has come to accept the idea that there are different names for one divine power. “I realized that I couldn’t find what I was searching for outside of myself,” she said. “Finally, I have come to a synthesis of Jesus/Goddess in my spirituality.”

Although the Goddess GATE differs from other GATE programs in its emphasis on the feminine divine, it also includes some cultural immersion experiences. The participants visit a women’s sewing co-op, a health clinic in a barrio and a women’s drop-in center with a restaurant and literacy classes.

Most moving was an evening “Dialogue with Mexican Women.” Through translators, several poor women -- many of them leaders in base communities -- told their stories. One woman spoke of leaving an abusive husband and her struggles to make a life for herself and her six children. A refugee from El Salvador described her husband’s murder and her own witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s death. “We are sistering one another,” said a Mexican woman named Angelica. “We share much of the same life experience. The sun rises for everybody. There may be differences of faith or religion, but we all want to experience the divine.”

Though the Goddess GATE group is for the most part white, female and middle-class, there is some diversity among the pilgrims. The 34 participants include two men (spouses of a participant and of Rosemary Radford Ruether). They are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and neo-pagan. They have traveled from all over the United States, as well as from Canada, Scotland and Zimbabwe. The age range spans from 21 to the late 60s.

Maryam Beltran of Minneapolis is both the youngest member of the group and the one most attentive to the issue of race. A Filipino-American, she works as a diversity coordinator for a suburban school system.

“I was really attracted to Goddess GATE not just because of the female divine, but the indigenous divine,” she said. “I can’t separate gender and race. I see the goddess not only as a woman, but a woman of color.”

Beltran’s Catholic/Filipino upbringing was a traditional one. “But for the past few years, I’ve become very disillusioned with it,” she said. The Mexico trip is part of her “spiritual quest,” and already she can say it has changed her life. “I’ve learned a lot not just from the sacred sites but from the women and their wisdom,” she said. “I’ve discovered a way of linking the ancient to contemporary Christianity. I definitely think I’m onto something bigger that I’m going to integrate into my life.”

After climbing several pyramids, the group finally had the chance to go through one in Cholula, near Puebla. The archaeologists’ tunnels go straight through the seven-layered pyramid, which is now covered with earth and topped with a Catholic church. As the Goddess GATE pilgrims moved through the dark, dusty tunnels, Corcoran urged the women to try to “find the center” and lead them in a chant: “We all come from the goddess; And to her we shall return; like a drop of water; flowing to the sea.”

By the end of the week, many of the women were freely using the term goddess. But it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue for everyone.

“I still have trouble saying it,” said Connie Arena, a mother of three from Buffalo, N.Y, who said the first time she imagined God as mother she was “totally blown away.”

“I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “It sounded sacrilegious, but I loved it.” Corcoran admitted the word is loaded with a sense of the idolatrous for Christians. But ultimately it comes down to the question: “Do we really believe that women are made in the image of God?”

As with many women, the answer to that question resides deep in the gut. “I’ve always known that the ancient feminine aspect of God was within me,” she said. “Coming here verifies that.”

Arena also was particularly moved by Our Lady of Guadalupe, although she had to get past some theological baggage about the Virgin Mary from her Catholic upbringing in order to appreciate her as a “manifestation of the suppressed divine feminine.”

“Mary has always been important to me, but there has been a disconnection because she’s so pure,” she said. “Now I’m trying to connect with her.”

The closing ritual on the last day of the Goddess GATE is profoundly emotional. This group of women and men traveled on a spiritual journey together and now they had to return to their busy lives in places far from here and from each other.

Following a dramatic presentation of “Misa Mujer” (“Women’s Mass”) by a local performer, the Goddess GATE pilgrims shared the masks they had created throughout the week. They used words like power, strength, creativity and integration to describe the week’s experiences. Corcoran read a reflection that urged the participants to “find a new way ... the wise woman’s way.” Then each pilgrim was vested with a medallion of a woman and commissioned, bidding them safe passage to health, happiness and wholeness.

Any group of traveling companions is likely to build relationships, but the sense of community during the Goddess GATE is especially intense. “It’s not just the holy spots but the holy people,” said Michelle Sinclair, a divorced woman from Pittsburgh who had recently made a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. “Out of anything I’ve ever done, I’ve felt the greatest sense of community with this group,” she said. “We’re so diverse, but what we have in common is our search for spirituality.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999