While some of us maintain a strictly secular mindset, many of us follow a spiritual path, or are interested in the experiences and viewpoints of women committed to spirituality and/or religion. We may have studied with or read the books of one or another woman teacher over the years, or been part of her congregation. Now we see that the spiritual leaders and teachers in our lives are growing older along with us. If we have been lucky enough to find a woman to guide us in the spiritual quest, we may wonder what changes have come about in her relationship to spiritual path as she ages.
We decided to ask women from various traditions to tell us about their experience and insight in this respect. The responses from these women spiritual teachers are divided into two installments. In this Fall 2010 issue, we hear from three women:Spotted Earth Woman/Gloria Brooks, a Native American medicine woman from Washington state, is guided by dreams and visions and the community of medicine people. She tells of her early struggles and addictions, how she overcame them by following her omens and the spiritual guidance of her people, and what her life of service is now. Yvonne Rand is a Zen priest who began as a student of the great Zen master Suzuki Roshi and later established her own Bodaiji (Buddha Mind Temple) Zen center. She tells of her observations of decay and death in the animal world and how that informs her understanding of this life of constant change that we all share.Victoria Rue is one of those very few Catholic women who have defied the church prohibition on women priests and have been ordained. She reflects on her earlier impatience with the slowness of change in the Catholic Church and recounts her coming to peace with that as she adopts “the long view,” in her life now as a priest, college instructor, theatre artist and hospice counselor.
In the Winter 2010 issue, we will publish the second installment of this section, with reflections of a woman Sufi teacher, a rabbi, and a Unitarian minister who runs a center for homeless people.
Dream or Vision
by Spotted Earth Woman / Gloria Brooks
As a Native American child with some Dutch blood, I grew up in foster care away from my relatives and apart from my traditions of the Yurok, Karok, Pomo and Eel River tribal lines. I lived in a culture that did not accept a brown person. Growing up, I wondered what I was and how to find out why I was so different in this world.
Finally I met my brother, sister, and uncles. My sister was extremely psychic; she knew things that would occur, and in our years together I understood that what she saw was true. She told me I was very different from other people and would just have to practice. I did not know what she was speaking of, but I accepted what she said and never questioned it.
Still wanting to know my larger family, I moved to the reservation several times. This was not good for me: I became an alcoholic, just like everyone else. I became what I saw, believing that is what my kind of people did. After years of abuse in foster care, I looked for the same kind of treatment in the companions I came to live with.
I spent many years going in and out of life’s reality and not really caring, blind to myself and those around me. I stayed in the company of the people I could relate to—abusive, addicted, and uncaring—until finally there came a yearning inside me to do something else. Even in the midst of the abuse, I looked for a sign to show me the way. Finally, a dream came to me that would bring this inside yearning into reality.
In this dream I saw two children, coming out of flowers. The flowers were large, white, rounded, slowly opening petal by petal. When they were fully opened, there were the newborns, one dark with a full head of hair, the other light-colored with brownish thin hair. It was so vivid—these babies emerging from the flowers. In the next few weeks I found out I was pregnant.
Throughout the pregnancy my partner continued to abuse me. The child did not survive after birth. My sorrow lodged so deeply inside me as I endured further abuse, and I slipped back into addiction. Pregnant again, knowing life had to be different, I saw an elder and asked what I needed to do. “Learn botany,” she said. I did not understand the reason but decided to work on what she was giving me to learn.
It was this that turned me toward my future. I moved to a different state to live. With the help of counseling, I made a change: I went to college and learned how to be in relationship with other people, to use my voice, to have opinions, to laugh and know how to have fun.
Along came more elders saying, “We have been waiting for you.” I was welcomed into a different way of life in which I was taught ceremony, song, a way to be in this world, and how to understand my past and the ways it could help me in my future. I was told I would have visions of what I was to do in this world. I was trained to be a leader of the people, to be in service to all people, black, red, yellow, and white. For years I was in this learning community. My first duty was to learn and pass on what I understood, travel and connect with the knowledge. My travels took me to several states and Europe, learning and teaching.
In this community it was required to seek visions. I was shown my path of the white buffalo, with the four directions as my support. I continued to teach and offer counseling to others. And I began leading a sweat lodge two times a month—which I continue in the present—for prayer and healing of recovering addicts and criminals.
I believe I am living my last vision, one I saw in my very first years of sun dancing. The first year, I was shown an Apache Sun symbol. Twenty-plus years later, I am married to an Apache man. In another dream, I was shown that I would be given a pipe, and that occurred on my travels. In the last vision, I experienced disaster, and I knew I needed to take the children to safety and teach them to bounce back.
As a grandmother and great-grandmother, I am now caring for children, teaching them and guiding them. I am a foster parent and working toward what I saw. Still a servant to the people.
Turning Toward Change
by Yvonne Rand
I have been practicing meditation in the Buddhist tradition since 1966. Before that time, especially when I was young, I spent significant time alone with a horse. In the dry parts of the year I often went into a creek bed near where I lived and lay on the trunk of a bay tree that had fallen. I got there by standing on the horse’s back and climbing onto the tree trunk, where I could stretch out and look into the sky through the leaves of the trees. The horse would relax and often seem to be nearly asleep. I did not sleep, but I became relaxed and quiet, and my sense was that the horse and I became at ease with each other. I realized years later that those early times were close to my experiences in Zen meditation.
I was fortunate in being able to spend long periods of time with Suzuki Roshi, founding Zen master of San Francisco Zen Center, who was my first Zen teacher. When I drove him between San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, we usually would not talk. I realized after Suzuki Roshi died that those extended periods of time in silence as I was growing up had helped to prepare me for this.
The historic Buddha’s teaching that everything has the mark of change has been frequently in my mind’s eye as I live my life. I attribute this understanding to my having had the good fortune to take care of Suzuki Roshi as he was dying. After his passing, I have been asked by others to keep company during their dying as well. Sickness, aging, dying, and death have been steady companions for me.
After I moved to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, I began to see various critters that had been killed by cars on the side of the road. After saying a short prayer for those beings in transition, I picked up their remains and brought them home to watch them as the process of disintegration took place. In time, other people brought me dead beings as well. I still have a sturgeon that washed up on the beach, and I still see the evidence of its decomposition taking place.
Recently I found a bobcat that had been hit and killed by a car. I put it into a box and brought it home, and I have been observing the process of change since then. Sometimes I find dead frogs that have been caught in the pool where we live. Somehow this process of observing and describing and being present with these creatures helps me see the continuous process of change. My awareness of change includes the changes of flexibility, energy, and memory in my own body. I find working in the garden where I now live is also a great source of inspiration and insight with respect to this. The stream of change I have been aware of for many years usually does not bring up fear. But when fear arises, then I am willing—at least so far—to let it be there. It, too, has the mark of change.
In our culture I frequently observe that people are reluctant to turn toward change. Yet when we hang on to what we hope will not change, suffering is right there.
Each morning I look out the kitchen window and watch the sun rise in a slightly different location on the far ridge. I am grateful to have an open heart with respect to change, for to do otherwise seems foolish and leads to trouble. I know about this trouble from the times when I hang on to some expectation about how a situation or a person will be. So my request of myself at this time in my life is to notice change, to be interested in change, and to allow change (as if I could do anything else about it!).
Women of the Long View
by Victoria Rue
Most of my adult life I have been an activist and theatre artist: in the Roman Catholic Church, in my university teaching, and in the theatre. As I embrace the graces of getting older, I’ve begun to understand the term “women of the long view.” I first heard it in women’s groups advocating for Catholic women’s ordination. I always laughed and pushed on past it, feeling the urgency of immediate change. Now, at sixty-three, ordained in 2005 illegally as a Roman Catholic priest and thus automatically excommunicated (according to the Vatican), I begin to understand the phrase “women of the long view.”
On a boat on the St. Lawrence Seaway that warm July day in 2005, women bishops, along with hundreds of amazed lay people, laid hands of consecration on the four of us ordained as women priests. From that moment, I fully expected our Spirit-filled movement to erupt into thousands of other women becoming ordained the following year. Damn. Somehow the Sacred was not operating on my timetable.
What has occurred, in fact, is a slow discernment by women. Some are afraid and know that they will lose their jobs if they work in parish ministries. Others question whether the priesthood is a model women should be interested in at all. Still others want to wait until the official door of the Vatican opens to women priests. As of 2010, we have just seventy women priests in the U.S. (For more information see http:www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org.)
I have learned as I’ve aged that deep change occurs slowly. Institutions like the Catholic Church change incrementally, in fits and starts, as the human beings, mostly men who shore them up, work very hard to hold on to their power. Yet the seeds we plant now will indeed bear fruit. The other day I was talking with a woman who is part of the Sophia in Trinity community that I worship with in San Francisco (www.sophiaintrinity.org). I was waxing enthusiastic about my moving closer to San Francisco in order to better serve the community. She said, “Victoria, go slow. What we are doing here is not starting yet another parish—because all of us who gather, in fact, already belong to parishes. What we are doing is seeding change. When we celebrate Eucharist together, we experience worship that is inclusive and creative, with everyone sharing leadership around the Eucharist table. We are experiencing something new, and we take that back to our parishes and become like sand in the oyster.” The woman’s insight spoke deeply to me.
I understand I am part of seeding a future in the present. I am also aware that change comes through generations (another perspective of being a “woman of the long view”). Many of the young women who are members of Generation Y, born after 1980, and Generation X, see past a need for women priests. Many don’t see a need for priests at all. And in fact, most of the women who have been ordained are over 55. So perhaps that reality, too, is part of what being a woman priest is today, a transition to a discipleship of equals in which the priesthood will no longer exist.
Just as institutional change is often about relinquishing power and control, interior change can often be about letting go. In addition to teaching about comparative religions, I am also a hospice spiritual care counselor. Whether people have thought about their death prior to entering the last months of their lives or are only now facing their passing away, it seems valuable to take the time—call it prayer, call it meditation, call it stillness—to soften, become vulnerable. When we experience our own fragility and impermanence, when we are able to place ourselves in the midst of something larger than ourselves, when we see our lives in their minutiae and largess, we can breathe deeply, relax, and let go into mystery.
Part of seeing the long view is being resilient, realizing a kind of staying power from understanding I am not alone but part of movements that work for transformation over time. And thus my resilience is nurtured by seeing the long view. So, whether I am teaching young people at the university, or telling stories through theatre, or creating worship with a community, or silently accompanying a person who is dying, or conversing with those who are re-collecting the shards and colors of life as they ready themselves to let go of it, I feel myself as a “woman of the long view.” Perhaps that long view is where the Spirit, the Mystery, lives.