Via Feminina for New and Old Monastics
As part of this years retreat at Tepeyac Abbey in Lagos de Guadalupe outside Mexico City, I have brought with me Beverly Lanzetta‘s complimentary volumes, A new Silence, Spiritual Practices for the Monk within, and The Monk Within, Embracing the Sacred Way of Life. In both works she speaks of an emerging revelation or Theological Archetype which she calls the Via Feminina (The Mystical Path of the Feminine). In comparison to other mystical paths (Via Negativa and Positiva) she sees the Via Feminina as the new and emerging theological construct for our time. She writes in the Monk within, “my interest lays in the deep theology of the mystical feminine, which I call via feminina. In Christian theology, via signifies the spiritual journey toward union with God; feminina conveys a quality of consciousness that includes but is not confined to biological females. Thus, while the feminine is an archetype in both women and men, perhaps embodied and expressed differently in females and in males, via feminina is also a spiritual practice and way of life.” P. 77
Perhaps the Question best asked is, how does the Via Feminina model for both New and Old Monastics in their path towards Wholeness and Holiness? In what way could this change the Monastic Vision we share?
Perhaps I should begin by saying that Beverly’s Spiritual Theology is built on the Old and the New. Many of her ideas can be found in the ancient writings of both scripture and spiritual theology. But she frames her ideas for a very new and contemporary society that is struggling with issues of exclusion of race, gender, sexuality, clericalism, global warming, and oppressive government schemes. She says, “As a distinct spirituality, via feminina is attentive to the multiple wisdoms of body, psyche, and soul, placing primary importance on healing those social factors—whether of gender, culture, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, etc.—that stigmatize persons, rob them of dignity, wound their souls, and betray the highest aspirations of religious life.”
After reading and reflecting on her essays that cover many aspects of the Via Feminina, which is not an end but a means, a kind of lens which one uses to see the world both physical and spiritual, I realized that I have been on this path for a very long time. Having had to face many of the issues she refers to close up and in the flesh (homophobia, discrimination, clericalism, institutional manipulation and ostracism), I have lived in my own flesh the tensions that so many people today have had to suffer under. She writes, “As women and men awaken to the great divide that gnaws at the bottom of their souls, many discover that they cannot go back to a hierarchical worldview—winners and losers, privileged and disadvantaged, superior and inferior religions—or to outdated beliefs. Neither, however, can they move forward. “Imprisoned in a night of broken symbols,”we are caught in an impasse between inherited religious systems that subordinate and a future that we hope to become.”
As Monastics new or old, traditional or modern, we are in an era where we are invited to break out of many of the schemes that are signs of decaying and dying institutions visibly seen on a regular basis in the tabloids. (The discovery of hundreds indigenous secret graves of children on church school properties in Canada, this years scandal in France and in Germany covering up Thousands even tens of thousands of sexual abuse cases of Minors, Churches supporting regimes that are enacting draconian punishments on Sexual Minorities in their countries, even the death penalty).
We continue to live each one in our own denominational bubble. Ecumenism, once a active and vibrant movement within all Christian Denominations is nearly non existent. As most mainline denominations are losing members, especially those who are 40 and under, each denomination has moved into a competitive mode to capture or convert as many of their own as possible in order to try and keep the coffers in the treasury as full as possible. The idea that we might all be one as Jesus prayed in the Gospel of John seems impossible to achieve. Another one of Jesus’ pipe dreams.
The Via Feminina, refuses to get caught up in denominationalism. As a matter of fact it goes beyond all formal religious constructs. It refuses to embrace only one system of thought or doctrine or dogma. She writes, “In the tension where we no longer know who and what we are, whether there is a god we dare call God, whether there is anything other than betrayal, comes a Presence, Light beyond Light. This unveiling of our own sacred feminine is nothing less than a reordering of knowing and being. We discover that our true self exceeds religious traditions. From this vantage point, something radical happens: the center of our subjectivity shifts. Touched by the Divine Feminine’s liberating voice, we have been named as Her own.” P 93 The Monk Within.
The Via Feminina also refuses to accept separation, division, violence, whatever marginalizes, injures or violates the Sacred in the World. Separation of sexuality, gender, race, creed, political identity, or philosophy, of one over the other or as absolute or normative,has no place in the Via Feminina. This is known as “spiritual oppression”. The violent act which refuses to find room for the other expression or thought. In the Via Feminina the “other side” must always be represented and listened to and respected. It is totally non violent and inclusive.
Via Feminina also struggles to recapture the long standing existence of the Feminine of the Divine. In the Christian Context, Hagia Sophia, Theotokos, Mary as Sacred Mother and God Bearer, Guadalupe, and Christ the Mother, are all part of a living tradition, yet at times on the margin or overlooked by Theologians and Sacred Writers (mostly male over the centuries). This aspect of rescuing the Divine Feminine will be one of the greatest push back points by most modern religious institutions as it begins to take hold and owned by those who choose to walk its path. The institutions will resist vehemently as these Feminine Symbols for the Divine which have always existed, but are now being re-appropriated by “outsiders”. Yet, already many Female Monastic Communities (Benedictine and other) are embracing on a very real and personal basis the Path of the Via Feminina (eg. Nuns in the Bus, On Being Benedictine, Sr Joanne Chittister osb), even if it requires that they go underground to do so. Or another example, Sr Philippa Rath osb in Eibingen Germany an ouspoken critic in favor of Women’s Ordination and against Sexual Abuse in the Church. She is calling for a new paradigm within the church. And she wears a full Habit!
The Via Feminina stands for a radical change in religious living. Beverly Lanzetta writes, “As a way of thinking and living, via feminina is a catalytic force in healing and transforming the human heart. It expresses a divine sympathy with the Earth’s suffering, the human family, and all of creation. It is concerned not only with the inner life and its spiritual implications, but also with improving the conditions that breed violence, subjugation, and hatred.” It is a transformation of systems, institutions, thinking, and ways of being in the world.
In the end the Via Feminina is about a change of heart and mind. Conversatio Morum for us Benedictines. Beverly writes, “The mystical path of the feminine explores how restrictive social norms and religious communities affect the person’s inner life, spiritual health, and ability to reclaim his or her true nature. It investigates the structures of consciousness of mystical traditions as a resource in our struggle for liberation. Via feminina supports a person’s discovery of this spiritual core, the dynamics of its development, and his or her quest for meaning and love.”
At 62 years of age, I have seen the Institutional Church and the World struggle with ongoing change and its many demons that have been part of its long and standing history. The Via Feminina is far from any Panacea. Beverly admits, “The mystical path of the feminine is not a panacea, or universal cure, but a path of healing and remembrance, of mercy and love that liberates forgotten and abused aspects of the human spirit in order to bring into our lives a more true vision of our humanity.” P. 82 The Monk Within. As much as her Revolutionary Spiritual Theology takes me outside of my comfort zone, I would like to hope that this Path will take us in directions we have not traveled, and will be a unifying, not dividing path for those who embrace it. Beverly writes in the context of a new Monastic Vision for the world. Both inside and outside of the Traditional Monastic framework. I believe that she believes that Monasticism both in its traditional and contemporary expressions is one of the Keys to healing a broken and suffering world. Also a Healing of a Broken and Suffering Church. Via means Path, and it is a Path or Road that still leads us to unknown and undiscovered places.
A basic orientation of via feminina is the spirituality of benevolence, which focuses on love of creation and the flourishing of life. From this perspective, it affirms humanity’s responsibility to critically evaluate religious history, express sorrow over excess and abuse, and co-create new wisdom traditions.
Rising up from our most holy nature, via feminina nourishes us with the nectar of heaven and heals our wounds, leading us to wholeness and freedom. Beverly Lanzetta
Pax Bene +. P. Vincent osb 6 January 2022 Epiphany Day
In Memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of S Africa who dared to see and think differently.