On Writing / Poetry

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

The day has arrived! Guest writer, poet, woman extraordinaire Penny-Anne Beaudoin’s full posting is below.

Penny-Anne Beaudoin

We’ve had overwhelming readership this past month, and I do hope that you all take the time again to read the final instalment – and then the article in full. Thank you!

Do read right up until the end, for there is a contest! Indeed! A contest to win a SIGNED COPY of Penny-Anne’s book Holy Cards!!! Yippee!

Here is the final instalment. Following it, will be the article in full!

Now another saint is haunting me, St. Mary Magdalene.  Let me say from the start, I had no intention of writing about the Magdalene.  So much has been written about her already, I didn’t feel I had anything of substance to add.  Then this past August, I was yard sailing, as is my custom, and I picked up a copy of Secrets of Mary Magdalene by Burnstein and de Keijzer, as some light summer reading.  I was so wrong!  What I thought would be fluffy speculative fiction turned out to be a collection of essays about the historical and theological significance of this extraordinary woman by leading experts from around the world.  I was mesmerized by every essay!  This led to more research, more reading, and before I knew it I was hearing a voice in my head again, and writing poems in the first voice, The Magdalene Poems.

And a remarkable story is emerging, about a woman in a man’s world, a woman of faith who is discredited and mistrusted by the men in her community, a woman who is in love with the golden shimmering possibility that God personally and passionately loves her in return.

Another wayward daughter with a story to tell.

Here is Penny-Anne’s piece in full.

Religion and Writing:  Reflections of a Wayward Daughter

I was covered in scars by the time I left the Catholic Church.  Nevertheless, I walked away with great reluctance and heaviness of heart.  I really tried to hold on.

God knows.

The Church had been my second home from the time of my baptism.  Catholic mothers of my mum’s generation took no chances that their offspring might wind up in Limbo for all eternity should they die without benefit of baptism, so the sacramental sprinkling took place as soon as possible after the cord was cut – in my case, about two weeks after my red-faced and squalling debut on this planet.  Thereafter, religion became part of my everyday experience – morning offering, evening rosary, grace before meals, church every Sunday (even when we were camping!), confession once a month, a dark smudge on my brow on Ash Wednesday, the Lenten fast, learning the catechism, bowing my head at the name of Jesus, inscribing a cross on my forehead whenever I passed the church.  I never questioned any of these observances.  Like the air, they just were.

Holy pictures were displayed in every room of our house, and there were all sorts of religious books to read, among them, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, with its captivating stories of heroes and heroines of the faith, penitents who tortured themselves in imitation of Christ’s suffering, martyrs who went to their grisly deaths unbowed and singing, mystics who seemed more angel than human.  I was particularly fond of the stories of the women saints, but best of all were the pictures of them, hair rippling to their waists, eyes raised to heaven, hands chastely folded over their breast or holding the palm of martyrdom or the lily of virginity.  I grew to love these women and their stories, and prayed to them to make me good.

In my little hometown, I don’t think the church was ever locked, certainly not during the day anyway, and “making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament” was encouraged.  It was a favourite ritual of mine, keeping Jesus company for a while, something I did whenever possible after school, pious behaviour befitting a good Catholic girl.  But it was during one of these visits I discovered, to my astonishment, the first indications of a wayward spirit that would become the hallmark of my adult years.

At this time, there were strict limitations regarding who could touch a consecrated Host with their fingers.  In a word, priests.  Communicants of course, took the Host on their tongues without sin, but only the priest’s consecrated fingers could get it there.  When we received Communion, a cloth was folded over our hands so that, in the event a Host was dropped, it would not come into contact with our unsanctified flesh.  The same restriction applied to the tabernacle, the gold box that housed the consecrated Host – only the priest could touch it.

Only the priest.

One afternoon after school as I sat alone in the church, I felt a strong impulse to move up from my pew to the communion rail and pray there.  This I did.  Then after a few moments, another startling idea occurred to me.  I opened the little gate in the railing, and knelt down in the sanctuary, the holy of holies, where the priest offered the Mass.  But even this did not satisfy my now thundering eight-year-old heart.  I walked up the sanctuary stairs, knelt before the tabernacle, extended my hand, and touched it.  With my bare fingers.  An unthinkable sacrilege.  Only the priest!  Only the priest, Penny-Anne!

Yes, only the priest.  And now…me.

You cannot be blamed for thinking this an act of outrageous arrogance, willful disobedience, brazen desecration.  But no one who knew me at eight years old would ever have called me in the least arrogant, willful, or brazen.  I was a pathologically shy child.  Teachers often forgot I was in the room.  My disobediences never extended beyond the venial, and I lived in terror of any and all authority figures, including and especially, God.

So why did I do it?

Although I would only comprehended the magnitude of that moment in retrospect many years later, perhaps, and this is just a thought, but perhaps I did it because I was in love.  In love with all of it – God, Christ, the Church, the miracles, the saints, the Latin, the incense, the certitude, the comfort, the golden shimmering possibility that I personally was being called – called to perform a prophetic act, one which would assure me there was no part of me that was unholy, no part unworthy or repulsive to the God who created me.  I acted with a child’s tremulous trust that my touch would not elicit divine damnation, but hopefully a mirthful voice that would say to me with great affection, “I see you there!”

This dramatic act only happened the one time, and I never confessed it…well, until now.  I disappeared into the hum and drum of small town life, to all outward appearances, and in my own mind too, a dutiful daughter of the Church.

All through school I showed a strong aptitude for reading and writing.  Literature was a portal to another dimension and I gleefully threw myself down the rabbit hole with every book that came into my eager hands, and there experienced worlds of wonder.  Then I started writing stories for class assignments and to entertain my classmates who predicted with resolute certainty that I would someday ply the writer’s trade.  Gratifying to hear, but even more so to see my friends disappear into my stories and derive the same pure enjoyment I did.

My stars seemed set.  I would become a writer, and hold fast to the Catholic faith.

Funny how things work out.

At the end of high school it was made clear to me that I needed to prepare myself for a job in the, (ahem!), “real” world, something I could make a living at, or at least enough to keep body and soul together.  Writing simply did not fit the bill.  And so began a long and varied succession of jobs from au pair  (lovely name, that, although back in the day we were just plain “live-in babysitters”) to medical secretary, to a three year stint in nursing school (took me that long to discover nursing was not to be my vocation in life), to a whole bunch of clerical jobs, to assistant psychiatric ombudsman, to three years at Hotel Dieu as secretary to the Quality Assurance Coordinator.  With every job change, the inner flame that was my purpose in life burned lower and lower, until, when I landed what should have been my dream job – pastoral assistant at a local church – I found myself in a very dark place indeed, dreadfully sick all the time, taking Gravol to get to sleep at night, waking every morning disappointed I was still alive.

Thankfully, I married my husband before I reached the tipping point, and I have no doubt but that he saved my life.  I grew stronger and happier, but something was still missing, something deep, something important.  Though I couldn’t put a name to it at the time, I know now it was my broken dream of being a writer that was at the root of my trouble, and had been for years.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the “golden shimmering possibility” that was my faith was beginning to tarnish.

It was a gradual thing at first, the unsettling doubts, the niggling little questions.  When I was a teenager we had a pastor who was fond of reminding his flock that “the father was the head of the home and the mother the heart,” and every time I heard it, I bristled.  I said to my mother, “It sounds like he means the man is the brain, making all the decisions, and the woman is, well, a pump, a necessary pump mind you, but a pump, inferior to the brain.”  She assured me I had it wrong – that the mother was the heart of the family because of her love for the children.  But what about the father’s love for the children, and what about those women who had to assume headship of the family in the father’s absence?  These things were never explained.  Perhaps it would have messed up the metaphor.

As I grew older I came to realize how in ways subtle and not so subtle, my role as a woman of faith had been carefully circumscribed centuries before I even came on the scene.  For instance, of the Ten Commandments, only nine seemed to apply to women, unless the Almighty had lesbians in mind with the Ninth Commandment’s warning not to covet thy neighbour’s wife.  There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, but only six of these applied to women, as Holy Orders, or ordination to the priesthood was, and still is, exclusive to men.  The language of liturgy and theology in the 50’s and 60’s was strongly androcentric; God was always imaged as a male, and often an aggressive male at that.  Women were rendered invisible by phrases such as “Christ came to save all men,” or the common greeting at the beginning of the priest’s homily, “My dear brethren.”  In the 70’s and 80’s, the Church did eventually open up the ministries of lector, altar server, and Eucharistic minister to women, but adamantly refused to reinstate the historical office of deaconess, though their husbands could be ordained deacons.  Women were not allowed to preach.  If they did speak at Mass, it had to be near the end of the service, and their remarks were referred to as “reflections” not a homily.  Female chaplains were not allowed to administer last rites to their dying patients.  And the sign on the seminary door still read, “No girls allowed.”  It wasn’t easy being a Catholic woman, but I would not entertain the idea of leaving.  No, I was going to help heal the Church from the inside.

I found a warm and progressive faith community at Assumption Chapel on the University of Windsor campus, and one Sunday as I sat in my place in the choir, the chaplain announced that Assumption University was about to reactivate its teaching charter and offer a Master’s degree program in pastoral ministry.  And again my heart thundered.  “Pay attention!” it said, “This will change your life.”

I applied and was accepted in the first wave of students in 1992, and found myself blissfully studying theology, Christology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, Christian feminism, spirituality, liturgy, ecofeminism, and even storytelling with top-notch professors.  I was in my glory back in the world of academics, but even more importantly, I could feel my heart start to heal and my soul energy begin to rise, for I was, at last, writing again!

My first academic paper was 31 pages long!  I had so much pent up inside me it seemed I couldn’t stop moving my pen!  Reflection papers were my favourite because I could put a great deal of myself into them.  I rewrote parables and bible stories.  I asked provocative questions and joined in lively debates.  I studied the Vatican II documents and thought, “Yes!  Yes!  Here is my Church self-reflecting, opening itself to new ideas about how to engage with the world and move into the next century.  This is my Church at its best!”

My professors were impressed with my papers and encouraged me to submit articles to journals of religion and spirituality.  To my utter delight, a preaching journal in New York picked up my first article and paid me the unheard of sum of $100 American – and that was back when American money actually meant something!  More publications followed in Canada and the States, and I was even nominated for the Canadian Church Press award for a compelling, full-page piece about women priests.  I’d found my calling, I thought.  I would be a feminist-religious-journalist.  Now there’s a job title you could sink your teeth into!

But before I graduated, my Church would break my heart one more time.

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?

Now another saint is haunting me, St. Mary Magdalene.  Let me say from the start, I had no intention of writing about the Magdalene.  So much has been written about her already, I didn’t feel I had anything of substance to add.  Then this past August, I was yard sailing, as is my custom, and I picked up a copy of Secrets of Mary Magdalene by Burnstein and de Keijzer, as some light summer reading.  I was so wrong!  What I thought would be fluffy speculative fiction turned out to be a collection of essays about the historical and theological significance of this extraordinary woman by leading experts from around the world.  I was mesmerized by every essay!  This led to more research, more reading, and before I knew it I was hearing a voice in my head again, and writing poems in the first voice, The Magdalene Poems.

And a remarkable story is emerging, about a woman in a man’s world, a woman of faith who is discredited and mistrusted by the men in her community, a woman who is in love with the golden shimmering possibility that God personally and passionately loves her in return.

Another wayward daughter with a story to tell.

 

CONTEST QUESTION:

WHAT IS THE NAME OF THE SAINT THAT PENNY-ANNE IS CURRENTLY WRITING ABOUT?

The first five correct answers will be put in a draw for a signed copy of  Holy Cards!

 

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