Sitting Together on a Mountaintop
University of Toronto
In my former role as a Catholic secondary school teacher, I
watched as students struggled and grew with their understandings
of themselves, their world, and their spirituality. Even though
religion was not one of the "cool" subjects (this was
my teaching subject), the students were engaged in the discussions
and were ready with questions that we could explore, if not answer.
Now that my interests have taken me in the direction of female
spirituality, I realize that my classes (and the curriculum)
were lacking a balanced approach to spirituality. Whether my
students were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist
(and I had them all), the feminine experience of spirituality
was never part of our discussion or of my teaching.
So what is female spirituality and how does it differ from traditional
views? A working definition of spirituality might be that it
is an intrinsic capacity for the sacred or for that which is
greater than the self, and that it is formed both within and
outside religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. A typical
image of spirituality is that of a man sitting alone on a mountaintop
engaged in a form of meditation or prayer. Although this does
not provide a complete picture, it is a common image. Female
spirituality is a stark contrast to this image of sitting alone.
Women do not appear to seek solitude as a primary source for
spirituality (although such a source is valid). Instead, their
experiences are much more communal and social.
Not only is female spirituality considered in terms of connectedness
to others, but the research also indicates that transcendence
can occur as part of a social experience (transcendence here
is defined as a spiritual experience outside of or free from
the limitations of the known self or reality). In one of the
earliest and most comprehensive studies of adolescent spirituality,
Starbuck (1899) found that many conversion experiences, defined
as a rather sudden change in character from indifference to spiritual
insight and activity, occurred as part of a Christian Revival.
Mattis (2002) found that the experiences of African-North American
women suggest that spiritual experiences occur specifically due
to intimacy with others and not as a result of disconnection
from the world. Further research by Ray and McFadden (2001) and
Bruce and Cockreham (2004) show that women have and seek spiritual
experiences while with others in a community or group.
The image of the man sitting alone on the mountaintop suggests
that spirituality is found outside of this world _ above it.
Perhaps your image includes a church, a monastery, or a mosque.
Mercer and Durham's (1999) investigation into gender orientation
and religious mysticism found that those with high femininity
scores also score higher on reports of mysticism and mystical
experiences. While Mattis (2002) suggests that "the tendency
to equate religiosity/spirituality with irrationality exists
in tandem with a tendency to represent religiosity/spirituality
as gendered (read female) experiences" (p.310). Even so,
the image of a man in prayer or meditation can easily be replaced
with the image of a woman in prayer or meditation.
Other discoveries from research into female experiences of spirituality
indicate that spiritual experiences may be very physical as well
as ethereal. Women report transcendent spiritual experiences
during two key physical moments _ childbirth and breastfeeding.
Kanis (2002) believes that women's bodies have everything to
do with the way they interpret religious experiences. The women
she spoke to interpret these experiences as spiritual transcendence
even though their religions told them that women's bodies were
evil, and therefore could not be the source of the divine. This
may result in confusion between what women are taught about themselves,
and the very real experiences of spiritual transcendence occurring
through the physical mother-child bond.
This is probably not what Jesus meant when he is reported to
say that "the Kingdom is within you," but it does suggest
that spirituality can be informed through our physical and embodied
relatedness to the world and to others. Women may not have been
allowed to speak of spirituality in this way, particularly in
light of the Judeo-Christian tradition that tells us that childbirth
(and women's bodies) are unclean. This is an important step for
women and adolescent girls to reclaim their physical spirituality.
Female spirituality might also help to illuminate another source
of transcendence _ transcendence as a result of suffering. Women
may see themselves fragmented due to injury, abuse, death of
a loved one, or divorce, and evidence shows that transcendence
can occur as part of healing from this fragmentation or paralysis.
Building on the assumption that spirituality is meaning-making,
Mattis (2002) suggests that meaning emerges out of disruptions
of taken-for-granted semantic and symbolic relationships. The
breaking of these relationships through spirituality can lead
to transcendence "by permitting people to develop alternative
conceptualizations of life's possibilities" (p.314). Slee
(2000) takes women into account by suggesting that healing of
fragmentation through transcendence can occur in a loving relationship.
Many of her subjects report that finding a loving partner gave
them an opportunity to heal.
Using her experiences with women and female spirituality, Slee
(2000) creates a female-centred pattern theory of faith development
as an alternative to developmental stage theories. Slee (2000)
suggests that there are five possible strategies for faith formation.
Although she does not explain her verbalized "faithing," it
may be speculated that this is an attempt to show faith as an
active, continuous experience rather than an end-point or goal.
The strategies for women's faith formation are: conversational
faithing (the way women converse to express important meaning),
metaphoric faithing (the way women use metaphor, analogy and
image to give shape to their faith), narrative faithing (types
and styles of story to shape and pattern experience), personalized
faithing (reference and relation to heroes or heroines of faith),
and conceptual faithing (using psychological and theological
concepts to interpret or analyze experience). These five faithings
build upon women's ways of understanding and relating to the
world in general. They make use of women's verbal propensities,
the use of storytelling, and also emphasize the need for heroes
or heroines of faith.
Just as the image of a man sitting alone on a mountaintop must
be reconsidered, the hero myth must also be reconsidered in relation
to female spirituality. Ray and McFadden (2001) found that the
solo quest is not the best metaphor for women since women do
not define themselves in this way. The solo quest requires separation
and individuation before re-integration into the community, something
uncharacteristic of women. Alternately, they suggest that women's
personal myths are best described as webs or quilts in order
to emphasize the connectedness that women feel for their personal
experiences and community.
We return now to the original question _ what is female spirituality
and how does it differ from traditional views? Perhaps, ultimately,
female spirituality is the opposite of "sitting alone on
a mountaintop." It is physical, social, communal, relational,
verbal, as well as transcendent. Women's spirituality is sacred,
yet informed by the here and now of the world in which we live.
This here and now can be physical, emotional, and painful, yet
at the same time it can lead us to the sacred. Peay (2005) believes
that spirituality is fostering feminism's fourth wave - a fusion
of spirituality and social action (the first three, respectively,
are women's suffrage, fighting for economic and legal rights,
and advocating for women's rights while embracing a "girlie
Education is not just an intellectual process. Learning takes
place emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually. My
own teaching would have benefited from an understanding of the
nature of female spirituality in two ways. First, as a female,
a thorough knowledge of my own experiences would have allowed
me to bring more of my authentic self to the classroom (male
educators may also see the range of their own spirituality and
bring that to the classroom). Second, both male and female students
would have benefited from a class with depth in which they could
more readily see images of themselves. By including these understandings
in our curriculum, we may counter the traditional view of spirituality
in isolation and foster the view of spirituality in co-operative,
healing, and social action. The image of the solitary man sitting
on a mountaintop might then be replaced by the image of a group
of people sitting together on a mountaintop.
Bruce, M.A. & Cockreham, D. (2004). Enhancing the Spiritual
Development of Adolescent Girls. Professional School Counseling,
Kanis, S. (2002). Theobiology and gendered spirituality. American
Behavioral Scientist, 45(12), 1866-1874.
Mattis, J. S. (2002). Religion and spirituality in the meaning-making
and coping experiences of African American women: a qualitative
analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 309-321.
Mercer, C. & Durham, T. W. (1999). Religious mysticism and
gender orientation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,
Peay, P. (2005). Feminism's Fourth Wave. Utne, April, 59-60.
Ray, R. E. & McFadden, S. H. (2001). The web and the quilt:
alternatives to the heroic journey toward spiritual development.
Journal of Adult Development, 8(4), 201-211.
Slee, N. (2000). Some patterns and processes of women's faith
development. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 21(1), 5-16.
Starbuck, E.D. (1899). Psychology of Religion: An Empirical
Study of the Growth of Religious Consciousness. London: W. Scott.