Who Is Skeleton Woman ?

Since hearing the story of Skeleton Woman we have been sitting in silence: you, me and the Storyteller. Now she breaks the silence, turns to me and asks, Do you remember how you first understood this story? How you invited others to understand it?

I feel a rush of embarrassment, remembering a time when I thought that any story must and ought and should be understood in the light of the Jesus story, the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection. I have learned since that the Jesus story is powerful for us because it is part of a more ancient story-well: Isis and Osiris, Inanna, Demeter and Persephone, stories that were at the heart of the ancient world’s mystery schools, especially in Egypt and in Greece. These ancient stories are in their own way a retelling of the oldest story we know: the story of the life/death/life of our planet earth, birthed from the life/death/life and exploding star.

Do you remember? she asks me again, mischief shining in her dark eyes, a smile softening the contours of her face. I see that she wants me to recall the moment when this story opened out for me, offering unimagined possibilities.

‘Yes, I remember,” I tell her now. “It was many years ago when I was just beginning my work in spiritual teaching. I had discovered that the ancient stories held wisdom and symbols that shed light on our relationship with the Holy. When I reflected on this story, absorbing the deep teachings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I saw myself in Skeleton Woman, in her bones, in her thirst, in her desire for love. So I cast in the role of the fisherman the best love of my life, the compassionate, untangling, tender Jesus.

“I cannot remember how many times I’d worked with the story in this way, always inviting people to see how Jesus comes into our lives to untangle us, to give us new life through his heart of flesh.

“One evening I was with a group of women and men in a parish in Southern Ontario. Though they had been a challenging group to begin with, on this, our third evening, I noticed a difference in the energy. As they were sharing their reflections on the story of Skeleton Woman in small groups, using the guiding questions I’d given them, I noticed hands gesticulating, heads shaking, nodding, the volume of voices rising, rising, especially in one group.

“I was elated. This is good, I thought. Now they are really connecting with the story.

“I invited their comments, their responses, asking my usual question, Who is God in this story?

Well, the speaker from one group began, I guess God is the fisherman. He went on to say why, prompted by my leading questions.

No, said a woman’s voice. As she stood, I saw with alarm the fire of debate in her eyes. God cannot be the fisherman in this story. God would never run from us in fear.

“It was her group that had been engaging in fierce discussion. I saw their heads nodding now in agreement as she spoke.

“Then something wonderful happened inside me. I understood!

You are right, I told her. For you have tested the story’s teaching against the truth of your own experience. And your experience tells you that the Holy One would never run from us. So, where is God in this story?

“As I waited for her response, I felt as though I’d just leapt from a plane, my parachute not yet open. I had no idea what the answer might be….

The Holy One is Skeleton Woman, the woman said. She went on to show brilliantly how the Holy One enters our life, invites our engagement with her, drinks our tears, takes her very flesh from our beating hearts, and finally becomes one with us, body to body, flesh to flesh, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.

“That woman, I learned later, was a feminist theologian. It was my first close encounter with a member of the species.

“Since that night, I have studied the writings of feminist theologians. On a few rare occasions, I have heard them teach, or give public lectures. I have grown in awe and appreciation of these women who, beginning in the last third of the twentieth century, applied their brilliant, trained intellects, their powerful intelligence, their embodied knowing, to the pursuit of God.

“As the woman who spoke that night did, the feminist theologians use their own experience as the fish gut to seek out the Holy, waiting, watching, in the deep waters of their own lives, as well as in the waters of Scripture and Tradition. They do not merely travel the sea of theology in a kayak. They plumb its depths. With fierce intelligence, with skills honed through years of work, they separate out the crustaceans that have clung to the ivory teeth of truth; they sort through the imbalances, the errors that have accumulated over centuries of masculine-only embellishments, masculine-only experience, masculine-only perceptions.

“I found that the feminine aspect of the Holy had been hurled from the cliffs of patriarchy, had been left abandoned at the bottom of the sea. Now, in the fullness of time, She is being fished out by our need of Her, our hunger for Her, for all that She represents.

“I learned that Sophia, the personification of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the feminine principle of God. More startlingly, I learned that Jesus may himself be the masculine embodiment of that feminine principle.”

I stop speaking, aware I have been waxing on.

The Storyteller smiles. Let’s take some time to think of this, she says.

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