On Writing · Poetry

Penny-Anne Beaudoin – Poet – Writing & Religion Part III

We are overwhelmed with your wonderful, honest and heart-felt comments thus far! A thousand thank yous and heavenly genuflections to all!

I know you’re anxiously awaiting the next instalment of Penny-Anne’s piece on her writing life. Well, I will delay your pleasure no longer…in fact, I am treating you to it before you’re expecting it. Indeed, I offer this gift of early posting because I made you wait a few hours last week – and you let me know that you do no like to wait. :)

Please, read on…here it is…instalment three (of four!) by Penny-Anne Beaudoin.


We were studying two documents regarding the Church’s stance on women priests, a 1976 pastoral letter called “Inter Insigniores” which held that one of the reasons women were barred from ordination was because they do not bear a natural resemblance to Christ in his maleness.  I was utterly convinced that my professor was misreading the document.  My Church would never say such a thing, much less teach it!  The idea that women couldn’t image Christ because of their anatomy was so ridiculously racist, so absurdly misogynistic it was laughable!  Only my professor wasn’t laughing.  And then she handed out the document.

“…there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ.  For Christ himself was and remains a man.”  There it was in black and white, no apologies, no invitation to discussion or debate.  Women do not physically look like Jesus, so they can’t be priests.  A follow-up document (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) in 1992 reaffirmed the previous letter and added “This judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

I felt as though someone had kicked me in the stomach.  Everything in me said, “This is wrong, wrong,wrong!  The Church has erred, and erred seriously.”  To suggest that compassion, self-sacrifice, a life of service and justice-seeking, courage in the face of hatred, forgiveness, generosity, and peacemaking does not image Christ as effectively as male genitalia and facial hair, and that I must support this decision to be considered a good Catholic was simply too much.  No.  I would not submit.  Not this time.

Incredulity quickly turned to rage, then sorrow, for I knew in that moment I would have to leave.  It would not happen for a couple of years, but I could not remain, as many Catholic women do today, defectors in place, going through the motions of Catholicity but rejecting its dogma.  The split would be too great to bear.  For the sake of my mental health, I had to sever the ties completely.

Writing journal articles became stale and unfulfilling.  It was time for a change there too.  I turned my pen to short stories and poems and published them in the secular press.  But familiar themes kept recurring – what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, what it means to be a woman of faith in a Church that discredits and mistrusts you, what it means to turn your back on everything you once held dear because your heart is telling you go.

In time I found I missed my Sunday worship, and after considerable searching I found a gentle little Presbyterian congregation that welcomed me with open arms.  Soon after the pastor learned of my degree, he invited me to preach in the summer while he was on vacation.  I took to preaching like a duck to water, finding it combined the best elements of writing and performance, and challenged me to translate what I had learned into easily understandable terms.  Ironic that though it was my Catholic education that fitted me for preaching, such an invitation would never have come from my own Church.

Then in July 2008, for some strange reason, I found myself thinking about the story of Maria Goretti.  Maria was born in 1890 in Italy and died in 1902 after she was stabbed fourteen times by a field hand who lived with her family.  She was canonized by the Church a scant fifty years later.  I learned that this was the first time the Church had conferred the title of “martyr” on one who did not die for her faith, but in defence of her virginity.  And I wondered why?  Why would the Church do that, play fast and loose with the definition of martyr?  One source said that there were still a lot of American soldiers in Italy in the early 1950’s and this was the Church’s way of giving young Italian girls a model for how to behave if propositioned.  And if they were attacked, they should choose death before dishonour.  Even today, if you visit some of the web sites dedicated to Maria Goretti, that is the kind of language you’ll encounter – that she chose death before dishonour, suggesting the woman is dishonoured in rape.  The woman does not give consent, so no matter what is done to her, she is innocent.  The man dishonours himself, criminally.  But the Church has always had a hard time with this, distinguishing rape from consensual sex.

So that was one of my questions – why was Maria canonized as a martyr when she did not die for her faith?  But I had other questions as well.  For instance, why were the family, the doctors and the clergy so adamant that Maria had not been penetrated?  Why is Maria the patron saint of rape victims if she was not in fact raped?  If Maria had been raped, would she have been canonized?  If she had survived her assault, would she have been canonized?

Her story kept haunting me day and night.  And a little voice said, “You should write something about this.”  But I didn’t want to write about Catholic saints.  For one thing, by this time I was Presbyterian, happily worshipping the tartan-clad God of the Scots.  The last thing I wanted to do was write about a Catholic saint, but she wouldn’t let me go.  So finally, on July 6th, I wrote my first “holy card.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but July 6th is the feast day of Maria Goretti.

Within three and a half months, I’d written 22 poems about different saints that I referred to as “holy cards,” a reference to the little cards that depict a saint’s picture on the front and a prayer on the back.  These poems just poured out of me!  I was a literary geyser!  Sometimes I’d have two in my head clamouring for my attention, and if I couldn’t write them down right away, they’d nearly drive me insane.  I started to workshop the pieces at the Writers’ Salon at the University where Marty Gervais is our facilitator.  I think it was in October, that Marty approached me and said, “I’d like to publish holy cards.”  And I told him, “You can’t tell, but the top of my head just blew off!”  Eleven months after I wrote Maria Goretti, I had a book.

holy cards: dead women talking was an amazing labour of love!  I felt so plugged into these women, so connected to them, so haunted by them, I was compelled to write their stories, and if that sounds like I was a little obsessed, I think I was, and it was glorious!  To be so involved with a writing project was absolutely wonderful!

I discovered, not surprisingly, that the voice of these women was very similar to my own.  I was not so much channelling them as using their stories to work out some of my personal issues about the Church, about the depiction of women, about the glorification of virginity among other things.

I grew up with these stories, the stories of the she-saints.  I absorbed them through my mother’s milk, so I knew them very well.  But my feelings about the stories had changed significantly since my feminist awakening.  Some of the legends were just simply absurd and some downright offensive, but most I could rewrite in a way that would present these women as sisters, human beings who loved God passionately but had doubts and questions, got confused, made controversial decisions.  I feel great affection for the she-saints who never lost their humanity in their search for divinity.

And now?


Please note: I will post the fourth and final instalment of Penny-Anne’s piece next Saturday, followed by the piece in its entirety. We will be giving away a SIGNED COPY of ‘holy cards’ next week as well. How exciting is that?

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