They begin to tell you something, backtrack to add a detail or two and move back to the original topic before segueing into something that is kind-of-connected, return to the original thread, this time with an embellishment or two, before finishing back at the starting point. It drives most males mad, because while they talk about life in straight lines, women’s communication is more like a Strauss waltz.
As a woman, relationships are intertwined with my DNA, meaning my life circles and spirals in and around family and friends. There was a household to run, children to grow, employers to satisfy and all manner of relationships that both enriched and challenged me and my God relationship took a back seat for much of it. I prayed when someone was sick or I needed a parking spot, but for anything further I dipped into vaguely remembered childhood religious practices. Then a Brigidine sister, a work colleague, suggested a course at a spirituality centre.
This was a new beginning for me. The participants and presenters were women and in workshops and lectures I became aware that for centuries the way women had imaged God and lived their spirituality had been mostly ignored. I discovered that in the Bible the word Sophia, Greek for Wisdom, was a female personification of the gracious presence of God in the world. The imaging implicit in the word Sophia moved me beyond the words and images that called to mind the power, strength and assertiveness of a male world. For women like me who had tired of God images that didn’t recognise the empathy, creativity and relational sense with which we are gifted, Sophia came with the breath of new life, giving me the freedom to be who I am – a woman made in the image and likeness of God.
There’s a lot of us - in a shopping centre, at the daytime movies, having a coffee mid-morning or catching a bus, alone or with a friend, playing tennis and enjoying the freedom that mid-life and older can bring with it. We have a creative openness to the needs of others, whether it’s family, friends or the wider community. We can talk family, cooking, gardening, politics and religion with varying degrees of insight and fluidity, but there’s more to us than that. I call us Sophia women.
We are women of prayer, sometimes formal, often the kind of prayer that punctuates a day. Many, regardless of their religious denomination, have become dissatisfied with traditional ways of being Church. They might still do the flowers and clean the kitchen after the parish Sunday morning coffee, but they not only want more, they need more.
For ten years now I have met once a month with women like this, women who want to nurture the feminine God-spirit they recognise within themselves. We started as a group of six strangers drawn together by a small notice in a spirituality centre newssheet. What we shared in common was a need for affirmation that in the womanly expression of our Christian spirituality we were not alone.
For obvious reasons I called it a Sophia Circle, a time for women to share the circles and spirals of their everyday stories and know that whatever they say will be heard in a reflective space where the voice of God can be heard. In one grouping or another we’ve met in spirituality centres, a church hall, assorted lounge rooms and around a dining room table. One woman might be hurting, another jubilant, yet another facing tough decisions. Each was listened to without interruption, the individuality of their story respected, supported without anyone stepping rough shod over the intimate places where God hid in the joy and pain and all the other bits in between. It might be ordinary stuff but it has an extra-ordinary edge.
Last year the group I still facilitate was showing signs of becoming stale so we decided to spend this year reading a book by Christine Valters Paintner, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women. For women who were not used to reading non-fiction, let alone spirituality, it wasn’t an easy ask. Written from a Benedictine perspective, each of the ten chapters in her book incorporates prayer, questions for reflection, a focus and creative activity such as yoga and poetry. We’ve agreed to read a chapter a month, in our own time, paying special attention to the words or even the sections of the chapter that resonate with our own lives. That, in its personal reality, is what we share when we meet.
Sophia women are wisdom women who have matured in real life, as Pope Francis very succinctly said recently. Sophia Circles are a gift we can give ourselves and each other, our gift to a Church struggling to find its place in an increasingly unresponsive world.
For more of Judith Lynch's writing, please click here. The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women is published by Sorin Books, Notre Dame Indiana, 2017.