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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003


Between Heaven and Earth: In a Shape of (African) Women's Spirituality

Between Heaven and Earth: In a Shape of (African) Women's Spirituality

by Sybille Ngo Nyeck

St. Bartholomew's Church
Park Avenue at 51st Street
Sunday, June1 at 1 pm

"I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of human possibility, with no history to guide them, and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words." Gloria Steinem

Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, ``Lift your eyes and see what is this that goes forth ``. And I said, ``What is it?'' He said, ``This is the Ephah that goes forth ``. And he said, ``This is their iniquity in all the land''. And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the Ephah! And he said, ``This is Wickedness.'' And he thrust her back into the Ephah, and thrust down the leaden weight upon its mouth.

Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings; they had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the Ephah between Heaven and Earth. Then I said to the angel who talked with me, ``Where are they taking the Ephah?'' He said to me, ``To the Land of Shinar to build a house for it; and when this is prepared, they will set the Ephah down there on its base''. Zechariah 5: 5-11. From the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha.

This is my second visit to the US. I first came here in the year 2001 to visit the convents of the Order of St Helena. I stayed with the sisters and each day was a real blessing. I was quite amazed by the creativity of the sisters as well as their progressive work for a contemporary version of monasticism. At the convent of St Helena in NYC, I met a great woman. I'm tempted to call her ``the shoe sister'' because of her love of shoes. But she had more to do than wearing shoes and I followed her footsteps that led me to a Church where she was (and still is) in charge of a shelter for homeless people. I spent one Saturday night with her and ``our'' homeless brothers and sisters in this Church building.

On that night, she introduced me to her ``street friends'' with whom I chatted during the supper. There was a woman who apparently had some problems with drugs. She asked me

- Young lady, what's your biz in this country?

- I'm visiting the convents of St Helena.

- I guess you want be a nun. I wonder what in hell attracts women to this kind of shit!

I realized that I was facing a woman who didn't care too much about biting the hands that feed her. But not really surprised about that I said to her:

-I think it's the power of remembrance which is the living Cosmic Memory that is responsible for that. It's something that celebrates the Beauty of Creation never forsaking her sufferings.

She looked at me bewildered; drank her last drop of coffee and went to bed without saying anything more.

How does this Living Cosmic Memory shapes (African) woman spirituality?

``The Lord remembers'' is the meaning of the name Zechariah whose ministry began with the return of Israel from the Exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was in a process of reestablishing herself as a living and worshipping city. Zechariah was zealous to revive the social and religious order in Jerusalem. His visions of the ``Lord's purification'' of Jerusalem are found in the first six chapters of his book. In the vision of the bushel, ``wickedness'' is symbolically removed from Judah to Shinar (in Babylon) where the Jews suffered. In the prophetic and the patriarchal points of view, Babylon was known as the center of the pagan world where false goddesses had built their temples.

In the Bible, God's people are often portrayed in feminine gender particularly in their relationship to God. So, it's not surprising for their unrighteousness to be described in feminine terms. It was a tool meant to illustrate the wickedness of women and men.

The Ephah was a commodity measure for dry commodities such as flour as our ``bushel''. The immensity of the basket portrayed the immensity of ``sin'' and the necessity of keeping it within bounds.

Viewed from a different angle, the vision of the bushel can purposely be given a different meaning.

Patriarchy has usually made the word ``woman'' stand for the particular, not for the general. Exceptions to the rule only apply where the word ``woman'' is directly or indirectly connected with sin, impurity, ungodliness, unrighteousness, dirt, insanity, rebellion, idiocy. The implications powerfully affect the treatment of women in the society.

In religion, the patriarchy has identified women as vehicles of evil both symbolically and in reality. Scapegoating women for the sake of the present and the future lies at the heart of all patriarchal religions and beliefs. Incest, rape, wife-beating, excision, lack of freedom in regard to reproduction are daily bread for the African woman.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) women are subject to sexual mutilations at least in 28 countries in Africa.

Sexual Mutilations are defined as any partial or total removal of female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. This tradition in old times was intended to separate and differentiate the male from the female. In Mali the Bambaras and believed that human beings were born hermaphrodite and excision and infibulation was the solution for this differentiation. At the present time, some people view female genital mutilations as protective against the threatening clitoris that is supposed to weaken men's virility. This preventive war against female sexual organs also is intended to prevent women living under polygamy or monogamy from infidelity to their husband. Some men attribute a divine origin to mutilations of female sexual organs but neither the Bible nor the Koran prescribes them as methods of control of women. Yet excision is found in Christian, Muslim and Animist regions in Africa.

Besides the religious excuse, some people believe excision helps to clean and purify women of their ``dirty parts''. The clitoris is awful.

The consequences on women and female children are devastating. Pain, fear, bleeding, frigidity, psychological troubles, AIDS, depression etc .... The number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation is estimated at between 100 and 140 million. It's estimated that each year, a further 2 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilations.

The irony is that it is women (usually old women) who are in charge of removing the ``clitoris wickedness'' of young girls in the land of patriarchy.

According to Amnesty International 20% of women in Cameroon are sexually mutilated in the Far-North and South-West provinces. Actually, there is no specific law condemning female sexual mutilations in Cameroon. Since 1992, the Cameroonian branch of CI-AF ( ComitÊ Inter-Africain pour l'Abolition des Mutilations sexuelles fÊminines ) is working with the government to sensitize people about this issue.

Notwithstanding all this, the African woman is still strong and full of energy, passion and compassion. She is the provider, the housekeeper, and the wife of her husband plus his family. The Ephah by which she is measured and appraised is that which keeps her in seclusion in the dry land of patriarchy barren to all equal creativity.

The new African woman is also a rebel tired of dry commodity measurements. She is single or married; heterosexual or lesbian or bisexual; witch doctor and healer; Christian; Muslim or Animist. She is coming from the future and she belongs to the past. As a life-giver, her rising is feared by structures of oppression that keep trying to muzzle her even before she utters her first cry. Patriarchy keeps repeating to her that :

She should never identify herself as a lesbian. No African woman can be a lesbian unless she is a witch.

She should never decry incest. Homosexuality as well as incest is white people's perversions.

She should avoid talking about excision. She should accept it as counterpart of male circumcision. But no phallus is cut off in male circumcision while women have to give up their clitoris in excision. Still she should avoid making patriarchy look barbarous even when it buries alive women guilty of adultery.

She should not make too much noise about birth control. Children are of great help in civil wars.

She should not worry about her education, marriage is a shortcut to heaven etc...

But for women there is hope.

The first good news is that the so-called ``wickedness'' incarnated in women in mythologies and phallic visions cannot be killed (patriarchy has no power for that) but can only be cursed or sent away.

From Genesis we read:

In the Garden of Eden Yahweh said to the Serpent: ``Be accursed beyond all the cattle''.

In my tribal tales, the full moon makes visible `` a woman sitting there (in reality she is imprisoned), a little child on her back with a bundle of branches on her head. This is her punishment because she disobeyed on a Sabbath day.

In Zechariah`s visions the woman, instead of measuring is the product that is weighed and measured. She is imprisoned in her own shopping basket! Patriarchy makes what would have been (is) energizing, inspirational and illuminating for women to seem frustrating for them: The Serpent, the Moon, the Bushel, menstruation, childbearing, female genital organs, celibacy, heterosexuality and homosexuality . But thank the Earth! The silence of the African woman has proved itself to be not a capitulation or resignation but a prayer that sometimes enables women silenced by religion and the society to rise up to heights. We celebrate women like Hannah who positively marked the history of her people by whispering. Hannah was barren and her rival (she was in a polygamist marriage) would taunt her and annoy her. Hannah wept and would not eat. In the bitterness of her soul she prayed to God in the temple with tears. She was speaking under her breath; her lips were moving but words could not be heard. Eli the priest passing by thought she was drunk and rebuked her. But Hannah replied to him: `I am a woman in great trouble; I have taken neither wine nor strong drink. I am pouring out my soul before God. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; all this time I have been speaking from the depth of my grief and resentment. May your maidservant find favor in your sight.' The end of the story is that she was finally relieved and stopped grieving. Her prayers were answered and she found herself pregnant. From that pregnancy was born Samuel the prophet.

I always feel like all mysteries of life are enclosed between inspiration and expiration. Mother-Earth is a Cosmic whisper/er.

The second good news is that it doesn't matter how conscious we are about it - Creation is always in movement and so are women. Thank Heaven! The movement is not backward but forward and upward.

`This is the bushel moving forward'' said the Angel to Zechariah !!!

We are moving from lower to higher places

Forward for equality between men and women

Upward for Peace and Fellowship with Creation

Forward for good care and for the health of our biosphere. Forward for a sustained development.

Upward to echo Justice in the land of the living

Forward in celebration of new spiritual, social and cultural life-embracing icons

The thirst for Justice gives us wings that are Communication and Liberty.

The thirst for Justice connects women to the Origin that is the Original truth about them.

Where our fears and struggles meet our Infinite Original Capacity there is the ``Archimedian point from which we can look out at the world and assert our identity''. The African woman's spirituality is all about Global healing. She ascends and descends not to confuse and scatter but to gather and heal the wounded.

In the land of Shinar, where the woman in the basket has been sent, lies the ruins of the Tower of Babel, the first world cultural center destroyed by the power of suspicion. On the same ground where humankind has been scattered, confused and abused the woman stands. She is standing on the Broken Babel ``Ground Zero''. She is building there a new temple of Love. Renaming and re-creating new rituals is an important part of her ministry.

The Lord remembers and Woman also. Her original nest is called freedom. She will still remember her time of Exile in the land of patriarchy, sexism, racism, lesbophobia, poverty and wars.

Mother Africa will then rise up from her base and cry out to the World: See what they have done to my strong towers Liberia and Ethiopia. Everywhere there is confusion; bloodshed; violence; rapes. See what the civil war has done to the Ivory Coast; Congo; Rwanda. See what terrorism has done to Algeria and to the Kenyan economy. See what AIDS is doing my to children.

Mother America will rise up from her base and cry to the World: Remember my children bombed in Oklahoma City; Remember those in the World Trade Center (WTC) not forsaking children who are gunned down at school. See what drugs are doing to my people.

Mother Iraq will rise up from her base and cry to the World: See what they have done to my museums. My icons have been stolen and bombed.

Mother Israel; Mother Palestine; All Mothers and Mother-Earth will stand up for their children and give voices to the sufferings of the Earth. The rising of women's spirituality goes beyond gender limits and embraces the whole Creation in a Cosmic Love. Joys and sufferings make all people look alike.

Winged she is not as an angel but as a stork. The writer intentionally made it clear for us as a warning against any attempt to let our personal and collective mind suggests us anything else from the image of the `wings' that could give to these women any angelic prerogatives This is the only place in the Bible where women are clearly described as winged. Angels are usually male and whenever they come into contact with women they never talked about politics, economy, leadership or sciences. They are most of the time messengers of new pregnancies except with Mary Magdalena to whom an angel spoke of the risen Christ.

``He is not here. The tomb (Womb) is empty! Christ has been aborted by Mother -death!'' Why not by the dead/dying mothers?

Winged she is not as an angel but as a stork I've been told some families in this country say that a baby is brought by a stork. They envision the pouch attached to the bill of the stork as a womb. African women (and all the women) in their movements are not claiming perfection yet, the growth of their wings is of powerful significance for them.

Winged she is not as an angel but as a stork. She is not claiming perfection but the fullness of love in God/de.

Justice and Freedom are her wings. Let us take care not to break her tiny legs.

Amen.

Sybille Ngo Nyeck

Web page: /www.thewitness.org/agw/agw.nyeck.htm ``Ephah'' in capital letters is of great significance to me as the shape of a new reviving feminine spirituality.

www.osh.org
www.who.int/en
www.amnesty.org/
The Pan African committee for the Abolition of feminine sexual mutilations.
1 Samuel 1
Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess - Religion and power in Celtic Ireland, Harper & Row Publishers Inc, 1989.
These are the two countries that knew not colonialism as other African Nations.


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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