In my twenties I decided that if I ever left my faith I would become a Presbyterian minister.
I’ve always gravitated toward leadership of whatever I’m doing and of all the possible realms of leadership what most appealed to me was to lead souls to Christ. I am LDS and my faith doesn’t ordain women. At one point the Presbyterian ministry was an issue of profound consideration, and by point I mean about a decade and a half. I don’t claim to have questioned God any more than the next person, but we have a long history of animated conversation, much of it punctuated with “I just don’t GET IT.”
So when a young non-LDS woman writes something like this, I have to say, it resonates with questions that have passed between me and God over the past 35 years. The fact that not much of that conversation has occurred out loud with mortals is merely a factor of my personality, not evidence of a greater spirituality or a lesser courage. It’s just my way. I’m not too bothered by other people’s ways. I have a tendency to assume they are coming from genuineness when they do things differently than I would.
Picket a priesthood meeting? Initiate a letter campaign to a prophet? Not my way. Why have others wanted to do that? I wonder if, even in our different choices of how to act, we share some of the same buried questions. If so, I definitely get that. If so, I could never respond with a “that’s-what-she-gets-for-being-uppity” reaction to her reaction. My heart is tender for people who feel dismissed.
Because at nearly 50 I’ve had some time on the other side of life experience that has shown my younger self a few of the whys. That isn’t meant to be condescending, or to imply that age will draw everyone inexorably to the same conclusion. It’s merely been my change of mind, and a profound one for me. I don’t know that we ever share the real essence of experience with all its attendant meaning (because if we could we might have more efficiently skipped this messy mortality and simply watched some heavenly version of a Nicholas Sparks movie), but I feel inspired to come out of a relatively silent time to try.
I love stone buildings. They arise out of the earth with an air of permanence and a mark of the craftsmanship of their builder. They communicate solidity and structure and they provide shelter and a sense of place. I remember, when I remarked to a history professor that it would have been grand to live in a medieval castle, the raised eyebrows he turned on me. Dark, damp, miserably cold, he said they were. Nice tapestries, great view, clean, tight roofs, I responded back. Not nearly as pleasant as a warm peasant hovel with the animals in one room each night, sharing their body heat and company, a fire and the smell of simple food cooking in the other room, he fired back. Safe, I responded. The first focus of any and every attack, he disagreed with finality.
I’ve lived in a lot of homes since and though I’ve never had farm animals in the back room, I’ve come to understand what he was talking about. There is something beyond structure that makes a place perfect. A castle with central heat and carpet, I think.
Bodies also fascinate me. We were blessed with incredibly strong bones, and neither I nor any of my children have ever broken one – except my youngest. He once broke his arm on his sister’s arm in a fit of anger. He’s broken his wrist – twice. He was fallen on by a larger boy when he was 5 and it caused a spiral break in his leg that took 3 months to heal. No skull fractures yet – apparently the family hard head has been his salvation. Strong bones are good. Sheesh.
But my studies of eastern medicine have opened up to me the power that comes in breath, in energies that circulate around and through our bones, giving us life and animating all that we do. My youngest is almost never sick, incredibly resilient in mind and body (though he often challenges the resilience of everyone around him.) Strong spirit is good as well, so diametrically opposed (different in nature) from bony structure.
Don’t jump the gun and assume you know what I’m going to say. This isn’t some pat defense of different roles. I’m not finished. Older people weave with all the threads before they pull them tight.
Last year I wrote a 7-part series about this subject: A Compound in One. If you go read it I’ll be right here when you get back.
Dualism is a poorly understood concept in our westernized world. We think of dualism as good and evil, light and darkness, so one is preferred and the other ultimately serves it (i.e. good and evil exist but one is clearly superior). True dualism is the tension between perfectly mirrored equals that makes possible life. One will not triumph over the other – they will retain their separateness while they are unbreakably united. It is, in my humble opinion, the most romantic truth of the universe. It is no wonder that the most consistent analogy used for the relationship of Christ with his Church is marriage, because marriage is the eternal construct designed to save the souls of all created, as we learn in the sealing ordinance.
As any person who has embraced further covenants in an LDS temple knows, the structure of the kingdom is the family, not the Church. The ultimate priesthood is held between husband and wife, not between prophets and counselors. The Church as a construct is meant to be a temporal support to all the children of Earth, preserving the roots of the covenants throughout time from capricious changes. But as Elijah’s warning reminds us, having neither “root nor branch” (the ultimate form of being cut off from God and the ultimate description of a wasted Earth) implies a separation from lines of familial connection. The eternal root is in covenants binding us to our ancestors.
Spiritually, these covenants (ties) are preserved and administered in a Church by a male priesthood in an unbroken line to Christ.
A little over a quarter century ago a genetics discovery rocked the world. Displacing the previous reigning theory of solely DNA-based heritage (which changes with each sexual reproduction as well as being affected by environmental changes), a distinct subset of genetic material that remains almost completely unchanged from generation to generation is found in the mitochondria of cells – the powerhouses – rather than the DNA-containing nucleus. Interestingly enough, this genetic material is passed only from mother to daughter and because of it we have begun to discover Eve – the mother of all living, through an unbroken line of our female ancestors.
Physically, the covenant that ties us all together is preserved and administered through a female priesthood in an unbroken line to Eve.
Our genesis story characterizes Eve as the queen of mortality. She is Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Mother Mortality. And deep within every woman’s cells, in the powerhouses of mortal life (not the nucleus – not the center), is preserved the heritage of a divine ancestor, unchanged by circumstance or challenge or opportunity. It is a homing beacon and a means of connection because within every other woman’s cells is the very same genetic material. We are alike in ways men are not. We are priestesses of a divine endowment. We bear an ordination that men cannot, a mortal stewardship. This is so, so far beyond “roles.”
And this is not a light thing, not an “any-old-lady-can-have-a-baby-but-male-priesthood-is-restricted-by-worthiness” argument. It in no way excludes childless women. Every man can be ordained by the laying on of hands, and every woman is ordained at birth, and both can exercise those priesthoods on Earth unmarried. It is a testimony of balance of equal power. And like the male priesthood, its power is determined by righteousness. Anyone can receive the ordination. The power is another thing altogether.
How do women exercise this priesthood?
I have for years wished I could succinctly put into words the power I have learned in my life can come from a righteous woman. Elder Christofferson touched on it lightly, calling it moral authority and moral force, but in terms that were for me too close to the flowery descriptions of Mother’s Day Mamas. For many women that verbiage sounds too much like a backhanded compliment, a head pat, diminutive, and meant to keep them in their place, so it doesn’t resonate with them. I’ve come to know a God whose intentions are far from that, but I don’t know how to describe him to women who feel under fire.
Then I saw it in a beautiful photograph and brief comment from a father shared by Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton.
Female energy. Not like a woman can.
There is no definition here of the ideal woman, no flowery canonization that no woman feels she can live up to, that sounds like another creature, a frilly-apron-bedecked alien (oh for crying out loud, if you like frilly aprons please don’t write me). Instead there is the incredible power of any woman to grow people, and every one of us knows exactly what he’s talking about. That growing energy, that female energy, is the power of Eve latent in the powerhouses of our cells, and it makes women great CEOs and great kindergarten teachers, great inventors and great intellectuals and great cooks. And not all in one person, because we are linked to one another in one great female body. I don’t have to be a great cook because someone else is, and she’s being Eve differently than I am, empowered from her connection through generations to the one who brought this life to us.
She’s being Eve helping all around her garner every useful, good thing from mortality.
It is understandable in our mortal limitation to want to be valued as men are, to want to serve God and to make a difference and to be acknowledged in our power. We are clinging to a temporary mortal construct if we believe that will come through the Church. As important as the ordinances are as a lifeline back to Eden and its tree, everyone isn’t needed to administer them. Like the castle with its safe structure standing against storm, the kingdom needs the male priesthood, the ordinances kept safe by a hierarchical temple. For the kingdom to flourish, the castle needs the warmth of fires and food and loyalty and unity, filling all the spaces where there is need. The kingdom is more than the castle, even as it might be the most visible representation. Within it pulses a power unchained by rooms and walls and stairways, a power free to answer its own call to enliven the house. The body of Christ is both bone and breath, the solidity of structure married to the flow of life within it, completely interdependent. Neither is the one without the other, in Christ.
A hundred years ago in the US, women had a tremendous influence on society because they engaged in charity work, if they had the means. Only poor women were engaged in the process of earning a living. Women who didn’t have to were engaged in building a society. They served as a call to arms when trends threatened the whole. They were the original muckrakers, the proponents of the arts, the moral authority of a nation. They preserved the soul of a people while their partners preserved the body. Have women left their station as the navigators of the fleet? Have they come down from their watchtowers voluntarily to work alongside men in the administration of tasks?
Women were always intended, I believe, to sit in council with men, whatever our cultures have chosen. But I do not believe the castle, the body, or the fleet are benefited by women choosing to leave their posts as the eyes of the society. In recent years I have found my callings in Church have left me ample energy to engage my powers in efforts that call specifically to me. Like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “At some point you realize all your energy is not going to fit into that little package of teaching once a month in Relief Society;” you realize that all your efforts don’t have to be official, don’t have to roll out neatly in a priesthood interview calling. The revelations of this dispensation have a common thread: for everyone to learn the gospel, learn their calling, serve in it, that “man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh, but that every man might speak in the name of God.” You have to be extraordinarily unified in response and purpose for that kind of indepedence to work.
The women of the Church are awakening. These pains of sleep-shortened muscles, manifesting now in this yearning to be bone, will fade when the true power inherent in being breath become clear. A recent prophet prophesied that much of the growth of the Church in the latter days would come because of women.
My dear sisters, may I suggest to you something that has not been said before or at least in quite this way. Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world (in whom there is often such an inner sense of spirituality) will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world. …
Different from the world. More like our Mother, who kneels at the altar proxy for all of us. We don’t need the male priesthood if we understand the different priesthood we have. Joined to one another as women, the brave, forward-looking blood of Eve coursing through us all, we breathe life into the body of Christ, our ordination engraved in our cells. But we must stretch our muscles, feel energy flow into them, and be ready, both men and women. The true kingdom will be administered by kings and queens, priests and priestesses, joined in priesthood authority and power. We can’t contort the present Church into that any more than we can contort a republic into a monarchy. And we are obviously not all ready for that monarchy.
Now is the time to get ready.