Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Freeing the feminine

Freeing the feminine

Chapter 8 in Freeing the Feminine by Elspeth and Gordon Strachan,
Labarum Publications, Dunbar 1985, pp. 167-197.

Republished on our website with permission of the authors

At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.'

T S Eliot

There is a rhythm in the cycles of creation which bears the imprint of its maker, permeating every living thing: the quiet rise and fall of breath, the pulsations of blood, the ebb and flow of tide, the revolution of planets, the cycles of birth, death and rebirth at the heart of the seasons and of life. Light and dark, activity and passivity, growth and rest-everything is in a state of perpetual change and transformation. When we are in tune with these great rhythms and reflect them in our lives, then we are on the way to being whole and creative. But this cosmic dance can only be fully understood in ourselves and in the world when we are still, for the still point is at the heart of all things:

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace.
The ten thousand things rise and fall
While the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature. (2)

Although this may seem highly mystical, perhaps unintelligible to some, it offers a truth which is basic to life. At the heart of the perpetual cycle of opposites there is a core which inspires their movement, which yet transcends it. That core is God. If the much needed union of yin and yang, activity and passivity, masculine and feminine is to be found, then the perception which comes out of creative silence is of vital importance.

Unfortunately, silence and stillness seem almost impossible for us to attain. Over-active, dominated by the need to justify ourselves by what we do, we have learned to despise stillness, calling it sloth. Perhaps it is precisely because it is another aspect of the feminine that productive passivity is given so little value. Monica Furlong observes, `passivity is receptive, containing, fertile and . . . productive. It is the feminine pole of human experience and neither a man nor a woman can be creative without it.(3) In a world dominated by masculine busyness, the feminine virtue of creative stillness has simply been written off. But we all need times of reflection to find our way, just as much as we need times of activity to give us context, for ...

Action and contemplation only become dynamic in so far as each interacts with the other. If action stands for the `ego' of man, contemplation stands for his unconscious, and both are needed to make up the whole man. The active side of man needs the contemplative side to resolve the deep questions about aims and meanings, and the direction which action ought to take . . . Without contemplation man ceases to feel himself rooted, and without roots there can be no stillness, no security, and no growth.(4)

In today's world there is no doubt that stillness, security and creative growth are rare commodities. As Rollo May complained, we have lost touch with our roots, with ourselves, with our cultural heritage and our ancient connection with nature. In despising stillness, which is the way of nature and of God, we have sacrificed our own sense of meaning and relatedness. We are in danger of losing wisdom, true knowledge and the fulness of life. We refuse to grant them equality with information, invention, intellect and endless activity:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost m knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. (5)

It is not only our spirits which are stifled by an over-emphasis on the masculine, on intellect and activity. Our actual brains are also damaged by society's bias towards invention, intellect, speech, analysis and data collection. It is a physiological fact that our brains are divided into two hemispheres, each with distinct capabilities. The left side of the brain governs the right side of the body, including the right hand, and rules all verbal, logical, linear processes - reading, writing, speaking, rationalising, etc. It has been called the major hemisphere because its functions are more easily assessed and are in fact more dominant than those of the right side. It was only recently that the functions of the right hemisphere were begun to be understood. It governs the left side of the body, including the left hand and governs the intuitive, non-verbal, artistic and holistic qualities. It has been called the minor hemisphere. We all need both halves of our brains in order to function as normal human beings; the more in balance they are, the greater our personal wholeness. People who suffer brain damage to one side or another can face basic problems as a result, such as loss of speech or the inability to remember music. Yet it would appear that it is the left side of the brain and its functions which historically have been valued and developed, while the right side has been considered inferior, and subservient to the left.

This prejudice comes across quite clearly in the connotations associated with left- and right-handedness. The right hand, governed by the left side of the brain is far stronger and more dominant than the left hand. But it has also been given moral qualities through language, which imply that its functions are intrinsically better than those of the left hand. For instance, the word `right' means correct, true, proper, just, in English; and in German and French and other languages the words for right (recht and droit, etc.) also mean `law'. `Left' however is `gauche' in French and `sinister' in Latin whose meaning is clear enough! `Left-handed' in English is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary not only as awkward and clumsy, but `ambiguous', double-edged, of doubtful sincerity or validity . . . ill-omened, sinister.' These definitions reflect an ancient fear of that part of the brain which governs the left hand, and thus the intuitive, non-verbal, and imaginative aspects. As Betty Edwards says, `. . . it's important to remember that these terms were all made up, when languages began, by some persons' left hemispheres - the left brain calling the right bad names! And the right brain labelled, pinpointed and buttonholed - was without a language of its own to defend itself.' (6)

There seems almost to have been a plot against the right side of the brain whose functions are remarkably similar to those of the feminine. Indeed, Fritjof Capra has remarked `The deep-rooted preference for the right side - the one controlled by the left brain - in so many cultures makes one wonder whether it may not be related to the patriarchal value system.' (7) Chinese yinyang philosophy, numerology, psychology, so many wise systems of knowledge warn against such an imbalance, yet we have proceeded relentlessly with our preference for the collection of facts, frenzied activity and competitiveness rather than intuitive silence, creative stillness and a sense of oneness. Nowhere is this split between the two areas clearer than in the realm of education. Education takes upon itself the training of our minds, yet there is no comparison between the value and attention given to the three `r's' - functions of the left side of the brain, and art, music and spiritual awareness - functions of the right. Our education is heavily weighted towards the verbal, logical and analytical aspects of life; and against the non-verbal and intuitive. Yet this means that half of our brain is underdeveloped.

Charles Darwin discovered the dangers of exclusive concentration on the left side of the brain. Until the age of thirty he had a very good balance between both modes of thinking - the intellectual and the artistic. He was very fond of music, art, poetry and literature, especially Shakespeare. However, as he dedicated his life more and more obsessively to scientific research, he found that the right side of his brain had atrophied, and that he had lost his ability to appreciate the gentler arts. To his great dismay, Shakespeare had become `nauseatingly dull', and music and art increasingly meaningless.

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive . . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.(8)

There is nothing wrong with collecting facts, analysing problems, or strenuous intellectual activity, just as there is nothing wrong with any of the masculine areas of life, so long as they are held in balance. Darwin was a victim of his age - an age which deified the `scientific method'. He felt himself to be in danger of losing his moral perceptions as well as impairing his mind, through the repression of his artistic feelings. His brain had become a sort of fact-finding factory and knowing this made him miserable and deeply anxious. We may well ask ourselves if, in our reductionism technological age, our brains and moral and imaginative sensibilities are not being impaired by our concentration on reason at the expense of intuition, science at the expense of artistic perception, a reduced part at the expense of the whole? There are many who would dispute this hotly, as did Professor Derr at an ecological conference which Theodore Roszak was addressing.(9) Roszak was trying to put across his theory that the ills of our industrial society are partly caused by our bias towards rational understanding, verbal expression and analytical dissection of problems - in other words towards the left side of the brain, the masculine. He believed that this was unbalanced, forcing us into a narrow constricting box of rationality from which we must escape in order to learn how to act spontaneously and enjoy ecstasy and intuitive feeling, to celebrate life's fulness. In horrified tones, Derr reported that this was to be at the expense of education, science and rational thought. With considerable relish he described the counter-attack which came most notably from a number of economists, a judge and a molecular biologist. They showed utter contempt for Roszak's suggestions, poured scorn on his analogies, and insisted that being men in official capacities, they wished to remain rational and `stay in the box'. We can guess why the aspects of life ruled by the right side of the brain have been called sinister, and ill-omened: people have been terrified of losing control and thereby `losing face'. The schizoid fear of letting go is very apparent in Derr's account.

In a fascinating book titledDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the American artist Betty Edwards tells how many people's fear of self-expression through painting and drawing is due to their inability to trust the intuitive promptings of their right brain.(10) The dominant verbal cleverness of the left side of the brain has to be taught to be still and play the subservient role. Only then can the spatially and artistically talented right side of the brain get to work. Edwards achieved some astonishing results from her training classes, where the artistically inept became accomplished in a matter of weeks. Clearly, there is still a great deal to be discovered about the depth and scope of the feminine in us.

Wordsworth knew the value of letting the truth speak through the non-verbal part of our brain, in the stillness of repose and meditation. Replying to a friend's criticism of his laziness in day-dreaming instead of reading an improving book, he wrote:

The eye-it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, wher'er they be,
Against or with our will.

Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?(11)

This `wise passiveness' with which Wordsworth suggests we feed our minds can bring a richness to our beings, a sense of the wholeness and beauty of our world, and the ability to see into its heart. Meditation is a form of this wise passiveness by which we tune into the stillness of our Creator, and receive a new sense of harmony - and discord - in the universe. In meditation both sides of our brain are used, so it is the whole person who is at one with the Creator. In his perceptive book Silent Music William Johnston explores the spirit and science of meditation, comparing eastern and western traditions. There are many similarities between them, but some significant differences. Significantly, many people are looking to the east for new models and inspiration, in their search for wholeness and for relief from scientific reductionism. However, as Johnston points out, a fusion of eastern and western traditions is more helpful to us today, for alone each has its limitations.

The west is a predominantly left-brain culture, and even in meditation and prayer there has been considerable concentration on verbal communication: requests, intercessions, masses, etc. The dualities and conflicts of life are clearly perceived, as our creeds demonstrate, and there is a strong - and masculine! - awareness of our uniqueness of faith, our separate identity from God and the distinctiveness of own personalities. The paradox of the oneness of God and the variety of his creation has given rise to considerable intellectual debate. Johnston aptly remarks, `From Parmenides and Heraclitus to Plato, and from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas the words rang out in syllogistic disputations: "How can it be that there is only one thing and yet there are many things? . . ." While eastern philosophy scarcely considered the problem, its Hellenistic counterpart set up two opposing and irreconcilable systems, two opposing camps: monism and dualism, pantheism and monotheism.(12) It is this perennial perception of conflicting opposites which has helped to create our schizoid mentality, and freeze the feminine.

Japan, by contrast, despite her rapid progress along the technological road, still appears to be a predominantly right-brain culture. Zen Buddhism, for instance, dismisses the rational, intellectual, discriminating mode of thinking as illusory, of no use in the practice of meditation. Zen always reaches towards the holistic and non-discriminating consciousness, where all is one. As Johnston has stated, eastern philosophy scarcely considered the problem of the one and the many; it was simply a non-issue. Many accuse Christianity of overemphasising its ordinary verbal, intellectual prayers and praise, at the expense of a mystical, spiritual contemplation. The accusation appears to be well-founded. But Zen is equally imbalanced in its total rejection of the rational process - and thus of one side of the brain.

These systems need not contradict one another, nor perpetuate the clashing of opposite views. Our schizoid polarisations can be healed if we realise that these states of awareness - the masculine and feminine, the left and right sides of the brain - are equally vital, and complementary to each other. In meditation (or contemplation) Johnston describes three levels of consciousness which are part of a whole, which together give us clear perceptions of the dualities and difficulties of life. Out of this comes the awareness that in the eternal plan such divisions and frictions are of no significance: that all is one in God, and God wills to be at one with us. We might call these the masculine consciousness, the feminine consciousness and the union of the two.

The first, Johnston calls the discriminating rational consciousness. This is what is experienced in normal life, at business, in science and in scholarship. It is also experienced in much Christian worship and meditation. For some this is as far as consciousness goes, but for others it is only the first step on their spiritual path.

The second level is that of the undifferentiated consciousness. This is experienced in Christian mysticism. There is a sense of barriers being broken down, of being absorbed into the womb of creation, of the creator himself, and an awareness of the illusory nature of conflicts. This is the feminine perception, and as Johnston says: `To the person who experiences this oneness in a momentary intuition, it may become difficult to believe again in without that duality.' (13)

The third stage is like a marriage of the two, a `transforming union' in which there is simultaneous awareness of total unity in the midst of duality. `This is the experience of the mystic who realises in a flash of ecstatic love that only God exists and that God is the duality; just as the person experience of unity can only believe in all - and yet, at the same time, that he himself also exists as a unique person, called by name and loved definitively.'(14) This stage can be experienced equally in prayer and at work, as Brother Lawrence had found when he wrote: `The time of business . . . does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.' (15)

It is fascinating to discover that this third stage is often called `the mystical marriage'. It is seen as the inner core of our perception of life, the `holy of holies' of spiritual experience. Analogies are often drawn with the love-imagery of the Song of Songs, which spoke of the marriage of heaven and earth - God at one with his people, spirit united with matter, the masculine forces penetrating the feminine and the feminine responding to the masculine. As in a human marriage the man and woman experience a sense of transcending their separateness in the ecstasy of love while yet maintaining their individuality, the paradox of supreme self-fulfilment in self-giving, so in the mystical marriage, the believer feels totally at one with and absorbed by God - in heaven as it were - while also ever conscious of being an individual with feet planted firmly on earth. It is the marriage of heaven and earth.

This being so, we would expect those who experience this mystical marriage to value the material, daily matters of earth as highly as the spiritual, transcendent experiences of heaven. It does seem to be the case; for instance, at the very consummation of contemplation, the great mystic Theresa of Avila never lost sight of the humanity of God manifested in Christ. It was a point she stressed again and again. This was reflected in her own humanity and in the considerable achievements of her life. She had little respect for any reputedly great spiritual leader who could not face the drudgery of daily chores.

Thomas Merton, that profoundly influential contemporary mystic, was eventually as involved with political and social issues as he was with the inner life. For him too there could be no divorce between heaven and earth. He wrote, `In His love we possess all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And thus as we go about the world everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and of heaven.' (16)

It is a travesty of the true contemplative and spiritual life to see it as separate from the issues of our day. Jesus himself was a rebel. He offered peace, but not at the cost of truth or reality. Kenneth Leech makes this point in his bookThe Social God,

The Christian pursuit of contemplation does not take place in space, but within this broken and fallen world-order. Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today's context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness .... It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that [the contemplative] pursues the vision of God and experiences the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. He becomes part of that conflict and begins to see into the heart of things.(17)

Kenneth Leech might well have added the ecological crisis to his list of modern problems. Since an intense love for nature seems to be a common experience among mystics of all traditions, one would expect to find ecologists among the world's most spiritual people. Zen teaches that we start with the awareness that `I am breathing' and then move to the awareness that `the universe is breathing'. The sense of the unity of being, experienced in stillness, extends to the whole of creation. If the universe is groaning, then we should be aware of it. John of the Cross saw his beloved God in all of nature. `My beloved is the mountains, the solitary wooded valleys, strange islands . . . silent music,' he wrote. Presumably if the mountains had been blasted, the solitary wooded valleys chopped down, and the strange islands polluted, then his silent music would have sounded more like a cacophony. Thomas Merton saw animals, flowers, trees, all of nature as worshipping God just by being themselves: `A tree gives glory to God first of all by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is imitating an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.'(18) If those who are cutting down the Brazilian rain-forests at the rate of twenty million hectares a year saw each tree as being part of the imprint of God, would they be able to pursue their massacre?

The Christian mystic who did most to redeem nature from her alienated category of the exploitable other, was Francis of Assisi. He loved the things of nature with an intensity that was almost sensual - `Blessed Francis, wholly wrapped up in the love of God, discerned perfectly the goodness of God not only in his own soul, now adorned with the perfection of virtue, but in every creature.'(19) He sang the praises of the birds, stones, woods and flowers, addressing a hymn of thanksgiving to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth. He is famous for addressing his sermons to the birds and for their trust in him. Because of his great humility towards the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms, never showing any manipulative or exploitative attitudes, Francis has appropriately been called the patron saint of ecologists.

One does not have to be a saint however, or even a mystic, to experience the love of God, in turn transporting us to a deep love for all his creation. Today, when we are being continually informed about the tragic state of our environment, the extinction of animals through our greed, and the starvation of millions of fellow human beings, those of us who know and love the CreatorSpirit should feel compelled to enter into the struggle to protect, rescue and restore creation.

The vision and the resources to engage in this struggle are given when we become still before God. Stillness is not the monopoly of mysticism, it is at the very heart of the bible and involves one of its most inviolable laws: `Be still and know that I am God.' We read that God, the originator and creator of the rhythms of life, worked at his creation for six days and rested on the seventh. He commanded his people to do likewise every seven days, and he commanded them to allow their fields and animals to rest every seventh year. It was part of God's rhythm of withdrawal and return that every seventh day and every seventh year productivity be stopped.

The meaning of sabbath (shabbat) is literally desist or stop. As Erich Fromm points out, this stopping is vital for re-establishing harmony and balance in ourselves, in our human relationships, and in our relationship with nature. His interpretation of how we worship God on that day is very similar to Merton's view of a tree worshipping God - we just need to be ourselves. `It is not rest per se, in the sense of not making an effort, physically or mentally,' he writes,

It is rest in the sense of the re-establishment of complete harmony between human beings and between them and nature. Nothing must be destroyed and nothing be built: The Shabbat is a day of truce in the human battle with the world . . . . On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one's essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love.'(20)

Important though it may be to stop and rest even for one day out of seven, many of us find this almost impossible to do. We are so obsessed with getting and spending, having and doing, that we seem to have no time just to be, but this is at tremendous cost to our own wholeness, and potentially very dangerous for society in general. Overexpansion, uncurtailed activity, aggressive competition and blind ambition are dominant features of our world. The wisdom of meditation, the poise of stillness and the creativity of quiescence are dismissed as little more than an excuse for unhealthy introspection and idleness.

In her book, Contemplating Now, Monica Furlong recommends that everyone takes an extended period of rest at least once in their lives, but warns that learning how to stop can be a very painful process. Unvoiced fears and disturbing thoughts which have lain dormant while we were active have a tendency to come crowding into our minds like difficult children demanding attention. In these very fears and anxieties, however, lie the seeds of our healing. They are like weeds that spring up in fallow soil, pointing us to deficiences and needs that we would otherwise miss or try to repress. If we allow ourselves to face the anguish, self-doubt and anxiety of this time, we emerge refreshed and invigorated, with a new vision about ourselves and the beginning of an awareness of what it means to be whole:

We may take weeks to get to this point, weeks in which we struggle with guilt at our `laziness', and with a growing sense of depression and self-dissatisfaction. If we can persist with this then we reach a sort of nub or core of the experience. Our depression becomes very great, there is a strong sense of pain and darkness, and we find ourselves gazing down into the deep springs of our personalities, and of life itself.

If we can stay with this sense of pain and loss, then we are assured by Monica Furlong that we shall find our way back:

Once we have reached this still point, and have rested at it, however briefly, then we begin to move, slowly at first, back towards activity . . . and one by one we can again pick up the tasks that interest us, and which seem proper to our development, finding that we see them with new eyes. We have a new vision about ourselves and our lives. (21)

A new vision is certainly what we need today, ruled as we are by archaic fears of the feminine aspects of life. If we do not listen to the promptings of our own instinctual need for rest, renewal and spiritual refreshment, it is not only we who will suffer break-down; the whole of society will begin to crumble.

Monica Furlong tells us that passivity belongs to the feminine pole of human experience and no woman or man can be creative without it. It is very striking that in the west it is the catholic rather than the protestant tradition that values creative passivity, the mystical way of stillness and the power of meditation. The openness to the feminine in this way may well owe something to the influence of Mary. Although her veneration has done nothing to improve the lives and status of actual women themselves - indeed it has done them great harm - nevertheless her presence in catholic consciousness has had a feminising effect.

In the reformed tradition, by contrast, it is the masculine work-ethic which still seems to be dominant, with many people showing great suspicion of silence, stillness and contemplation. There seems to be a fear that by tuning in to the breathing of creation and the rhythm of our own breathing we shall find, not God, but the devil. In abandoning ourselves to silent prayer we yield ourselves up to God and find ourselves welcomed into our begetter's womb. Such a thing is terrifying for those who have a dread of the feminine and as we have seen, many Christians do indeed have just such a dread. This was most strikingly illustrated in the Church of Scotland's debate on the `Motherhood of God'. Many thought it was Mary who was being addressed as `Dear Mother God' in a prayer at the Annual Meeting of the Woman's Guild of the Church of Scotland in 1982, and expressed an almost hysterical horror that such a `papish' concept could have found its way into the kirk. However, as the kirk's own study-report on the matter coolly observed, `There are those who believe that the reluctance of a Reformed church to give recognition to Mary betrays a fear of femininity as much as a fear of Rome... '(22)

Many of those who object to the prominence given to Mary by the Catholic Church point behind her to the towering figure of the pagan goddess. Mary did inherit many of the characteristics of her predecessors and, as we have seen, is often depicted seated on a throne with Christ on her lap in a manner reminiscent of Isis; she is known by Ishtar's name, Queen of Heaven; she is the virgin-mother, as were many goddesses; and her title Mother of God is strikingly similar to the Great Goddess's title Mother of the Gods. However, Mary is not a goddess, nor technically speaking is she worshipped by Rome. She is venerated as the mother of Christ, the first Christian, and an example of how the Christian life should be lived.

Why does her name and that of the Great Goddess arouse such fear? It is almost as if the ancient power of the Great Mother continues as strong as ever, despite the opposition of Judaism and Christianity. Is her religion not dead? Does she really threaten our churches as those who fear calling God `Mother' appear to believe?


In a remarkable book by Edward C Whitmont, a leading Jungian analyst, the following astonishing claim has recently been made:

At the low point of a cultural development that has led us into the deadlock of scientific materialism, technological destructiveness, religious nihilism, and spiritual impoverishment, a most astounding phenomenon has occurred. A new mythologem is arising in our midst and asks to be integrated into our modern frame of reference. It is the myth of the ancient Goddess who once ruled earth and heaven before the advent of patriarchy and of the patriarchal religions. (23)

This figure has already found her way into. even the most conservative Christian churches. What does her appearance signify? Whitmont continues,

The Goddess is now returning. Denied and suppressed for thousands of years of masculine domination, she comes at a time of dire need. In the depths of the unconscious psyche, the ancient Goddess is arising. She demands recognition and homage. If we refuse to acknowledge. her, she may unleash forces of destruction. If we grant the Goddess her due, she may compassionately guide us toward transformation. (24)

What can this mean? It seems to confirm the very worst fears of those who have a dread of the feminine. Has the nightmare of the goddess returning become a reality? Who is this goddess who demands recognition? Is she a pagan deity resurrected from the past?

The goddess who arises in our midst is not the historical Ishtar-Astarte, nor is she Isis, Gala or Kali, yet paradoxically she is all of these. The goddess who arises is no threat to almighty God, the transcendent being who made us all and who, although we call him Father, utterly transcends physical and psychological definitions. The goddess who demands acknowledgment is an archetype, a model which lives in the unconscious psyche of each one of us and relates to certain ancient forms of human thought and experience. She is as much a part of creation as we are ourselves and her power, which lies in our unconscious minds, is at its strongest when we fear her most.

As we know, nature has from the beginning of time been personified as a goddess, and various religious traditions have worshipped her as protector and sustainer of life. These traditions have left their mark on our `collective unconscious', that part of our psyche which has a connection with the common historical and psychological heritage of humanity. It was Jung who discovered this aspect of our unconscious, finding that just as there is an evolutionary history behind the human body, so there is also an evolutionary history behind the mind. The immensely old psyche of primitive people forms 'the basis of our modern minds in the same way as the ancient physical structure of all mammals is akin to our skeletal frame. As Jung explained,

The trained eye of the anatomist or the biologist finds many traces of this pattern in our bodies. The experienced investigator of the mind can similarly see the analogies between the dream pictures of modern man and the products of the primitive mind, its `collective images', and its mythological motifs.(25)

These collective images which Jung called archetypes arise in our dreams, fantasies, myths; and in the very structures of society itself. Sometimes when a person or group is dealing with some basic life-situation such as giving birth, facing death or overcoming conflict, the experience is perceived through images which are not consciously understood, but relate to the perception of the experience which is the common inheritance of humanity since before rationality. These images are the archetypes and are of such antiquity and complexity that it is almost impossible to describe them, yet it is vital that we gain some insight into their meaning for they exert tremendous power. Jung warned that,

Archetypes . . . are psychic forces that demand to be taken seriously, and they have a strange way of making sure of their effect. Always they were the bringers of protection and salvation and their violation has as its consequences the `perils of the soul' known to us from the psychology of primitives. Moreover, they are the infallible causes of neurotic and even psychotic disorders, behaving exactly like neglected or maltreated organs or organic functional systems.(25)

The archetypal Great Mother relates to the early days of human history when nature was mother-both cruel and kind, life-giver and death-dealer. The realm of human experience which she makes us face is that of the suffering, destructive and transformative processes of physical life. She symbolises the great cycles of birth, death and resurrection: cycles which can be found in the seasons, in daily life and in the spiritual mysteries. Hers is `a wisdom of the unconscious and the instincts of life and relatedness.' (27) She points to the oneness of all life and releases the power of our intuitions, feelings and desires in both their positive rules both the ecstatic heights and negative guise. She of joy and the depths of despair, bringing the threat of dismemberment and death but also the promise of purification and new life.

It is the Great Mother within who forces us to bring our feelings into the open. If we do not obey, then our creativity is stifled and we are unable to love ourselves or others. `Achieving authenticity necessitates honoring one's emotional needs and desires',(28) says Whitmont. Repression of one's emotions, even those we dislike, is exceedingly dangerous. It is like trying to cover up a sceptic wound. If the infected pus is not in some way expressed it will course through the body, poisoning its systems and creating serious disorders. As ruler of our deepest emotions, darkest desires and most unacceptable feelings, the goddess forces us to acknowledge those aspects of ourselves which we least admire. In historical terms, it was the darker sides of the vegetation rites - the sacred prostitution, orgiastic ceremonies and blood sacrifices which corresponded to this realm of fear, darkness and destruction in ourselves. In this guise she is Kali, the bringer of death, but it is a death that can remove decay and putrefaction and lead on to fresh, healthy growth.

Whitmont explains something of the dual role of the Great Mother by comparing her activities to the dynamics between the female ovum and the male sperm at the moment of conception. It is his belief that anatomy and physiology follow the same archetypal patternings to be found in the psyche. Thus the dynamics between the egg and sperm echo the interplay between the feminine and masculine principles in each person. In the womb the ovum at first passively receives the highly-active sperm, but once the sperm has penetrated her boundaries, the roles are reversed: she becomes the active partner and sets about dissolving and dismembering the sperm cell in order to make possible the creation of the embryo:

Although outwardly the feminine receives and submits to aggressive penetration, in the inner invisible mystery of her being she actively dissolves and dismembers in order to re-create, whereas the outwardly aggressive male, in this inner sanctuary, experiences the bliss of surrender to a different kind of wisdom.(29)

Just as the male sperm appears to be destroyed, but is in fact being re-created, so the death which the Great Mother brings leads on to transformation and rebirth. She is the crucible, the melting pot, the vessel into which the potential of our darker selves is poured, to be purified and made new. In her role as transformer, the goddess has the power to change the most violent of human urges into their spiritual counterpart. Her message is that both in creation itself and in the spiritual and psychological mysteries there often has to be a death, a dying to the pride of an unrealistic self-image, before new life can emerge. This is a truth which can be seen at work in God's created order and it was this message that was being acted out in many of the ancient vegetation cults, albeit in a crude, bloody and primitive way.

In its highest form it is also fundamental to the teaching of Christ, who said `He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it' (Matt. 10:39). He also compared his own death to the sacrifice of the grain of wheat in a way reminiscent of the vegetation rites; `Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (John 12:24).

The vegetation rites of the Great Mother were a primitive enactment of the sacrificial dynamics and need for purification and transformation inherent in nature; they have an archetypal meaning which still has a powerful effect on our psyches. It is no coincidence that the myth of the goddess is re-emerging today at a time when some of humanity's most violent attitudes are in evidence in such tragedies as the cruel, silent death of millions of starving children, the malevolent presence of monstrous nuclear arsenals and the mindless abuse of the earth. Because we reject the feminine in our midst, the goddess has taken on her aggressive, ensnaring role. She has been violated and takes her revenge by making us neurotic and fearful. As Whitmont says, we try to repress rather than integrate sensitively the goddess's realm of birth, death and the moods and intuitions of the feminine, and her consort's realm of desire, joy, aggression and destruction, but this has only created

a widespread sense of depersonalization, frustration, resentment, hate, incapacity to love and insensitivity to the humaness of others and of the self. Primeval envy, greed and destructive hostility increasingly dominate the scene.(30)

This is the potentially explosive schizoid condition which afflicts us today. The feminine which we reject in ourselves, that `repressed, subjugated and dreaded "abysmal side of man",' as Rosemary Ruether puts it, is projected in its most negative form on to women, mother nature, `Mother' God, and those feminine qualities which the world so much needs but which it has been taught to despise. How can we find the transforming role of the feminine, that aspect of the Great Mother that purifies rather than devours?

As we have seen, the archetype of the Great Mother makes us face those sides of ourselves of which we are most ashamed and afraid; those thoughts, terrors and temptations which rise up and demand attention when they are least welcome; that shadow-self which we each keep hidden behind our public persona. Healing only comes when we accept these negative aspects in ourselves, acknowledging their power and seeking their transformation instead of fearing them.

Christ is our example in this. The perfect love which he brings is one in which no fear is permissible. He tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, thereby insisting that we love ourselves as we are, unafraid to face our inadequacies and imperfections. He loves us not because we are perfect and pure but because we acknowledge that we are not. He is the transcendent reality behind the archetype of the Great Mother and it is by his power that our weakness becomes strength. He is the crucible, the melting pot, into which we are thrown to emerge purified, redeemed and made whole; our hurts, fears, hatred and bitterness overcome by the transforming potency of his love.

Christ is not just an archetype. As both creator of the world, dancing with God in the beginning of time and the first-born of his own creation, Christ is the master-craftsman who designed the archetypes, making them pointers to the principles behind his creation. The miracle of the Christian message is that in Jesus Christ these archetypes were incarnated. As we have seen, Jesus was both logos and sophia, word and wisdom; both the dying and rising God who gave his life for the people, and the sorrowing Mother whose energies restored her son and the land to health. He incarnated, though he also transcended, the drama of the dying god, the mournful search of the mother and the resurrection in the spring. By adopting not only the flesh, but also the archetypes of his own creation, Christ made his mission plain to all humanity. His was to be the final sacrifice as he took upon himself the sin of the world, falling into the earth and dying like the grain of wheat so that there could be a new birth. His sacrifice was once and for all, as was his resurrection. The drama did not have to be re-enacted every year. It was God's own power which, like the archetypal Mother, raised Christ from the dead, and the transforming and eternally renewing energies of God's Spirit are now in us and in the world.

As we have seen, Christ held together the masculine and feminine forces inherent in his creation. We are more familiar with his masculine role, but he is also the good mother whom we in our schizoid distress long for, yet fear. Unlike the bad mother who seems to despise our love-needs, and our hunger for sight and touch, Christ is the mother who is always there, who does not fail in her love and who knows our needs better than we do ourselves. Unlike our schizoid society which rejects the wisdom of mother nature, Christ so valued his own creation that he became part of it, experiencing all its pain and suffering as well as its joy and beauty. He is love incarnate and the renewing power of that love is in us. As Julian of Norwich said,

In our Mother Christ we grow. In His mercy He reforms and redeems us, and by virtue of His passion, death and resurrection we are made one with Him. This is how our Mother works mercifully for all his children who are yielding and obedient.

As truly as God is our Father, so truly also God is our Mother . . .

He reveals this in all things, especially in these sweet words: `It is I' That is to say, `It is I, the power and goodness of the Fatherhood; it is I the wisdom of the Motherhood; it is I, the light and grace that is all blessed Love; it is I, the Trinity; it is I the Unity. I am the highest good of all manner of things. I am the one who makes you love. I am the one who makes you long. It is I, the fulfilment of all true desires. (31)


The maturity of balance which Christ manifested in his character, relationships and his very being, which ancient wisdom explored, which our transcendent creator gave to humanity whom he made in his own image, that balance is what we need today.

In our over-masculinised world it is the feminine principle which must be released before that maturity can come about. As we have seen, all of us, men included, have the potential to express both the masculine and feminine principles in ourselves. Until now, however, the feminine has been almost exclusively associated with women. For this very reason, because they have been so long identified with the feminine, women now have a unique responsibility to campaign for its freedom; to stand up for the earth's rights in an age of ecological injustice; to call for more respect for the intuitive sanity that is deep within each one of us; to demand that men be moved to tears over the misery of millions of starving and dispossessed people, and the agony of our raped earth and raped women; to celebrate the wisdom of shared authority and shared power; to point the way to a future where co-operation counts more than competition, peace-making more than war-mongering, and love rather than fear is the motivating force behind politicians, industrialists, and priests alike.(32) Women have this special responsibility, not because they are in fact more feminine than men, although many are; not because they are more virtuous, wise, emotional, caring or spiritual; nor because they are closer to nature. They have this responsibility because they have been so exclusively associated with the feminine for so long. It is just as sexist and divisive to attribute all the feminine virtues to woman's nature as it is to attribute all the masculine ones to man's nature. We each possess our own individual mix of both qualities, masculine and feminine. Some people, women included, need to find more of the feminine in themselves; others, men included, need more of the masculine. Neither quality can fulfil its potential in us until we have also accepted, understood, and absorbed its opposite. Wholeness will only be achieved through a new balance of `opposites'.

There are some women who believe that a return to a matriarchal, rather than a patriarchal, rule is the answer to the world's problems. According to them men have been so spiritually blind and emotionally immature that they can no longer be entrusted with the government of our planet and people. All the main religions are dismissed because, like Christianity, with its traditionally masculine Trinity, they are seen as tainted with patriarchal prejudice. Some of these women are trying to resurrect the ancient goddess religion, in an attempt to release the outlawed feminine. Others turn the accusations of Aristotle, Aquinas, Freud and other detractors of female dignity, back on themselves, calling men morally, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally inferior to women.

It is understandable that many women are so hurt and angered by their exclusion from a normal humanity, and by the demeaning they have received at the hands of men, that they despise all men and set up barricades against the masculine in any form, calling it evil. But neither is this a mature position, and will not lead us all to wholeness. It is a position of great distress, the T.A. (Transactional Analysis) life position of I'M OK - YOU'RE NOT OK. The answer is not to go out like the criminal psychopath, destroying in bitterness and self-righteousness. The ancients gave clear warning that the feminine must not be allowed to dominate any more than the masculine. Domination by 1080 leads to the rising torrents of a flood. Death comes just as surely from drowning as it does from burning.

Jung warned of the danger of shutting out the psychic opposite, whether animus or anima. We have seen how the churches have rejected the feminine from their midst, for which they are paying the price. They have become possessed by a negative anima which reduces their political credibility, keeps them in a state of retarded growth and too often makes their priests, ministers, committees and official bodies petty, ineffectual and lacking in both courage and initiative. In the same way, those women who reject their own masculinity become possessed by that very masculine in a negative way - the negative animus. So they become cold, critical, self-righteous, insensitive and overcerebral. It is the positive feminine and the positive masculine qualities which each of us needs in order to be creative. If we could free ourselves of archaic prejudices against either, we might begin to find that maturity of balance which we need in order to grow up whole.

To find that balance we must learn how to be still in the presence of God, where conflict is transcended. This stillness is found at the feminine pole, just as a developing child starts in the primordial silence of the mother's womb where all is one and at peace. We then move on to encounter the divisive conflicts and tensions of identity and separation. This is the masculine force within us and is vital for the individual's emerging self-awareness and growth. As Sukie Colegrave says,

Individually this epoch of the masculine manifests, in both sexes, as a time of soaring upwards and away from earth, mother, family, instinct and nature; a time of separating from the whole, of acquiring an individual identity and an ego consciousness capable of resisting the powerful nostalgic longings to relax into the unconscious. It is a time of heroic struggle and achievement; a time of setting and pursuing goals; a time of conquest and exploration. (33)

Without this masculine energy we do not know the limits of our capabilities, we do not stretch ourselves beyond the frontiers of conformity and family taboos, we do not know ourselves well enough to love ourselves. However, the masculine in us must yield in time to the quiescent strength of the feminine which allows others to come to birth, is not self seeking or egotistic, does not analyse and reduce but synthesises and makes whole. If this does not happen, then the separation from the earth, mother, family instinct and nature may turn into alienation from these. The ability to resist the unconscious and find an ego-consciousness can turn into contempt for the unconscious and overemphasis on the superficial egotistic self-conscious drive; the proving of our strength in heroic struggle, conquest and achievement can turn into proving our ability to discover increasingly clever ways of destroying each other.

We have discovered our technological capacity for destruction through the unbridled dominance of masculine qualities. This has made us anxious, restless, and insecure. Now, to survive, we must put aside our adolescent desire to prove our independence from nature, and grow up into respectful and reverential relationships with her, with women who have for so long represented her, and with all the feminine qualities that our world so much needs. To rise to this challenge, we must all begin with ourselves, where we are. Having been identified with the feminine weaknesses for so long, women must summon their feminine and masculine strengths to rescue the feminine for both men and women. There is hope and promise:

There is a woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong,

and there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

There is a woman who is tired of acting dumb, and there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything.

There is a woman who is tired of being called `an emotional female' and there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.

There is a woman who is called unfeminine when she competes and there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.

There is a woman who is tired of being a sex object and there is a man who must worry about his own potency.

There is a woman who feels `tied down' by her children and there is a man who is denied the full pleasure of shared parenthood.

There is a woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay and there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.

Bringing the promise of new community:

There is a woman who takes a step towards her own liberation and there is a man who finds the way to freedom is made a little easier. (34)

This is only the first step. Once we have found the balance of the masculine spirit and the feminine spirit in our souls and psyches, we must go further and seek that balance in the world about us. When Jesus said, 'You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect', the word he used means `complete'. We are commanded to be complete, whole, as our creator is whole. This completeness does not stagnate; it does not rest in its own perfection; it cannot be contained in each person, unused and unchanged. Like the grain of mustard seed which contains the germ of the masculine and feminine forces inside its shell, our completeness cannot fail to burst into new growth. Eventually, with our roots planted deep in the earth and our branches stretched up in salutation to heaven, we shall become like the fully-grown mustard tree, a symbol of the kingdom of heaven, and find ourselves giving nourishment and protection to all God's creation.


1. T. S. Eliot: Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, Collected Poems,1902-1962, Faber and Faber, London, 1974.

2. Lao-tse: Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Wildwood House Ltd., London, 1977, number 16.

3. Monica Furlong: Contemplating Now, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1973, p 21.

4 Ibid. p 108.

5. T. S. Eliot: Choruses from ‘The Rock’, op. cit.

6. Betty Edwards: Drawing on the Right Sideof the Brain, Souvenir Press, London, 1982, p 34.

7. Fritjof Capra: The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, Wildwood House Ltd., London, 1982, p 319.

8. Charles Darwin: Autobiography, edited by Nora Barlow, William Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd., London, 1958, p 139.

9. For an account see Derr, Ecology and Human Liberation, World Student Christian Federation, Geneva, vol 111, no. 1, 1973, Serial Number 7.

10. Edwards, op. cit.

11. Wordsworth: Expostulation and Reply, Wordsworth Poetical Works, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, Oxford University Press, London, 1969.

12. William Johnston: Silent Music, Fontana, Glasgow, 1976, p 82.

13. Ibid. p 83.

14. Ibid.

15. Brother Lawrence: The Practice of the Presence of God, The Epworth Press, London, fourth conversation, p 23.

16. Thomas Merton: Seeds of Contemplation, Burns and Oates, London, 1957, p 8.

17. Kenneth Leech: The Social God, Sheldon Press, London, 1981, p 53.

18. Merton, op. cit. p 9.

19. St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis: The Little Flowers of St. Francis, Everyman, London, 1966, p 289.

20. Erich Fromm: To Have or to Be?, Abacus, London, 1979, p 57.

21. Furlong, op. cit. p 115.

22. The Motherhood of God, edited by Alan E. Lewis, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1984, p 59.

23. Edward C. Whitmont: Return of the Goddess, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1983, p vii.

24. Ibid. p viii.

25. C. G. Jung: Man and His Symbols, Picador, London, 1978, p 57.

26. Jung: Essays on a Science of Mythology, Collected Works, Vol. IX, p 105 cited by Whitmont, op. cit. p 28.

27. Erich Neumann: The Child: Structure and Dynamics of the Nascent Personality, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1973, p 53. See also by the same author: The Great Mother, an analysis of the archetype, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1955.

28. Whitmont, op. cit. p 11.

29. Ibid. p 137.

30. Ibid. p 12.

31. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, extracts translated for Masters of Prayer Series, The General Synod Board of Education, London, 1984, p 32.

32. For positive celebrations of the contribution of women see: Womanspirit Rising, Harper and Row, New York, 1979; Walking on Water: Women’s Spirituality by Jo Garcia and Sara Maitland, Virago, 1983,and Reclaim the Earth: Women Speak Out for Life on Earth edited by Leonie Caldecott and Stephanie Leland, Women’s Press, 1983.

33. Sukie Colgrave: ‘Sacred Dance’, Resurgence Magazine, no 86, p 17.

34. From the World Council of Churches Consultation on the Community of Women and Men in Church and Society, Sheffield, 1981, cited by Jack W. Dyce and Ros Lyle in the Congregational Union of Scotland’s Assembly White Paper, 1982.

Return to contents page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.