Professing Education


Sitting Together on a Mountaintop

Karen Csoli

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 culture").

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, 7(5), 334-342.

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, 38(1), 175-182.

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.