Thousands of years ago, some men decided which books would be put in the Christian Bible, and which books were kept out. This story comes from one of those books that was not put in the Bible all those years ago—"The Acts of Paul and Thecla”. Let’s see if you can figure out why this book didn’t make the cut. This is the story of Thecla.
The story of Thecla begins with Paul, a man who spread his understanding of Christianity across much of the ancient world. Paul went to Iconium after his escape from a jail in Antioch. A certain young woman named Thecla heard him preaching in Iconium. She sat day and night listening to Paul talk about God and about chastity—which in those days meant not getting married. Thecla decided to follow Paul and never to get married. So she went to tell her finance, who was not happy about this, and her family, who was not happy either.
Many of the men of Iconium were also very angry because their wives and girlfriends were listening to Paul and thinking about whether or not THEY ought to be married. The men said, “We do not know who he is. But he’s going to cause trouble in our marriages.”
Because he told women not to get married or to leave their husbands, Paul was brought before the governor. The governor ordered Paul to be tied up and taken off to prison. Thecla gave her bracelets to the gatekeeper at the prison, so she would be allowed to stay with Paul.
Paul was beaten up and thrown out of the city. Thelca was accused of being under Paul’s spell, and condemned to be burned at the stake. Thecla was brought into the arena. The wood was spread around her. The fire was lit, but while the fire got hotter and hotter and higher and higher, somehow the flames did not touch her. Soon a great storm cloud full of water and hailstones fell on everyone and they ran away. And the fire was put out.
Thecla escaped and went searching for Paul. While she was with Paul, Thecla made friends with Queen Tryphaena. Queen Tryphanea’s son, Alexander, asked Thecla to be his girlfriend, but Thecla said “NO WAY—LEAVE ME ALONE!” Alexander wanted to throw her into a pit of wild beasts and Queen Tryphaena tried to save her, but Thecla got thrown in the pit anyway. The Queen passed out when Thecla was tossed in the pit. The first animal that was put into the pit with Thecla was a fierce lioness. The lioness came up to Thecla, laid down next to her and licked her feet. When the other wild animals—bears and lions—were put in the pit the lioness protected Thecla from any harm.
When even more wild animals were tossed into the pit, Thecla jumped into a pool of man-eating seals to escape them, baptizing herself in the name of God as she jumped into the water. A bolt of lighting killed the seals and a cloud of fire surrounded Thecla, so the beasts STILL could not attack her.
Thecla’s arms and legs were tied to four bulls which were poked with burning hot branding irons, but they did not move. Thecla was spared.
Thecla went on to preach about god and teach women that they didn’t need to get married, that they could care for themselves. Many women followed her and spread her teachings. The rest of her life was devoted to this mission and to carrying for the sick. When Thecla was 90 years old, some men came to kill her. Before they could kill her, she leaned back into the walls of her cave and was consumed into the rock.
So often we, all of us, are oblivious to how our culture influences us to suppresses, minimize, and disregard women’s contributions to spirituality and religion. I know I have been blind. I preached a sermon many years ago in Austin, Texas, at Wildflower Unitarian Universalist church on Father’s Day and only discussed the relationship between fathers and sons. I was approached by a woman afterward who was quite upset that I did not even mention the relationship between fathers and daughters. 25 years ago that was something that flew under my radar. I said to myself, well I am not going to let that fly under my radar again. Not anymore.
Then a few years ago, I taught Unitarian Universalist history at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School, and—as it was sharply pointed out to me after my presentation—when I talked about the early history of our faith, from 50 ACE to the 19th century, I only told the history of all the old white guys of our religious tradition. OOPS! I hadn’t even brought up the women of early Christianity and of the 18th century—heck it was a woman who converted John Murray, the father of Universalism in America to Universalism. And I didn’t mention the Unitarian and Universalist women of the 19th century—the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, Universalist Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman minister in America, and the Prophetic Sisterhood of woman ministers who filled Unitarian and Universalist pulpits during the Civil War, and so many others. I realized I was still functioning inattentively under a patriarchal overculture accepting the prevailing idea that Unitarian Universalism was founded by a bunch of white guys. And when you think about it, if old white guys are writing the history, guess who that history is going to feature in the lead roles? People of color? Women? People who didn’t conform to expected gender identities or roles? Nope. These old history books feature old white guys and everyone else, if women or people of other gender identities or rolls or people of color appear at all, appear in subordinate roles. At that Midwest Leadership School, I experienced the “upside of my head” revelation that I need to reexamine spirituality, religion, and yes, Unitarian Universalism from a feminist perspective.
I want to share a few definitions to be sure we are all on the same page before delving deeper into a non-male, patriarchal-centered view of religion and spirituality. “Feminism is a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.” (Hawkesworth, M.E. (2006). Globalization and Feminist Activism. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 25–27). How feminism manifests in our world has evolved over time, from spiritual leaders like those in the Thecla movement of early Christianity working to empower women to search for truth, meaning, purpose outside the patriarchal society of the time; to political leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who worked to get women the right to vote; to the leaders of the Me Too movement like Tarana Burk, who use social media to confront sexual violence and sexual assault. Feminist ideology has been and is powerful and potentially life changing for all of us.
Let me share how life changing feminism was for an elderly member of a congregation that I served. She was a housewife in the 1960’s and felt something was missing in her life but couldn’t articulate what it was. She picked up the book The Feminine Mystique and realized that she had put aside her needs, feelings, vocation, almost all of herself. This congregant wrote: “Unformed as I was in 1967, I knew that my life was going to change. There was more to me than I knew, and I was going to discover what that was. By 1975 I was a committed feminist, had a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and a seedling sense of self. The questions [I was trying to answer]? As Rilke writes, I was ‘living my way into the answers.’ Not easy, but necessary. My understanding of feminist theology tells me I have the right to define my life. I can discern how to grow into my potential. Further, my personal experience is to be valued, and shared when I wish. My personal need and desire to grow, and my belief I had a right and responsibility to live into my potential intersects with feminist theology. So does my ongoing experience that my creativity enables me to be a catalyst for others. In very long hindsight I see that I went from not having a self and living through others, to learning and acting on what mattered to me and navigating my way in the world as a self-defining woman. Later in my life, when the psychological quest morphed into a spiritual quest, further evolving brought me to my Self—the capital “S” standing for a deep, soulful ground inside of me which is loving, available, and a source of sustenance for myself and to others.” Does her story sound familiar to some of you, even today?
Now let’s look at theology. Prior to the 20th century, theology focused primarily on a person’s relationship with their god. Most modern theologians define theology as a person’s or a religion’s answers life’s ultimate questions: humankind’s meaning, purpose, existence, as well as one’s belief/nonbelief in a divinity, in an afterlife, in a soul, and any other natural and supernatural phenomena. Given that the concepts of feminism and theology are not static, let’s ground ourselves in a definition of feminist theology for the purpose of our reflection today:
Feminist Theology “reconsiders the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of religion from a feminist perspective with a commitment to transforming religion for gender equality.” (WGS 320 Chapter 8: Women and Religion flashcards | Quizlet)
I wouldn’t say that I considered Feminist Theology in my young adult years, but I was certainly exposed to feminism and a broader understanding of theology as I entered Unitarian Universalism. Even though I was brought up in Catholicism and knew about the various saints, I didn’t hear about St. Thecla until I was a Unitarian Universalist. Some historians/theologians refer to Thecla as a gender bender—she often dressed as a male—feminist--advocating for women’s rights, in this case so women could choose who they married and if they married— prophet—who performed miracles and was the first woman to baptize anyone, herself and her followers—and spiritual leader—creating religious sanctuaries for women. You might say, Rev. Tom, St. Thecla is a fictional character. We all know the Bible is just one long metaphor, supporting a particular theology. My response would be that whether she existed or not, she was an icon for women in early Christianity. There is much evidence of her followers, murals, memorabilia, stories and texts that date back to early Christianity. There was a time—a millennium and a half ago—when Thecla was a household name, at least in Christian households. Her following was huge. Pilgrims flocked to her shrines in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Devotees committed their lives to her adoration. Revered as a model martyr and worshiped as a saint in some parts of the Christian world, Thecla vied for centuries with Mary, the Mother of Jesus herself, as most the most important person outside the Trinity. More and more women, Christian and otherwise, are looking for strong women forebears and early women spiritual leaders. Some of them are finding Thecla.
My exposure to Thecla caused me to wonder why I hadn’t heard of her and all the other women spiritual leaders that I know must have existed through history. And over time, I began to wonder how our popular religions might have developed differently if women had been more prominent and affirmed in our culture.
Today’s feminists and feminist theologians are expanding our definitions of feminism, and impacting our culture in tangible and system-altering ways. Today’s feminists insist on inclusive language and on bringing into our cultural awareness stories centered on strong women—think Hypatia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The want to define who they are in terms of themselves, not in terms of who they are related to. They embrace their individuality and their fierce rebelliousness—rebelling against male-centered cultural mores and traditions. They define their own sexuality and their own lives independently of the dominant patriarchal society; they de-center men when defining who they are.
This change is not anti-men. It is about changing societal norms. Feminism and Feminist Theology are about pushing all of us out of our cultural and religious comfort zones—to see the world in its completeness, not just in terms of “man, mankind, father, brother or brotherhood.” Women want out from under a masculine cultural umbrella, with its gender dualities, and its black and white absolutism. Today’s feminists accept and embrace non-binary genders and all the colors of life.
Let’s consider the meditation earlier in the service. Essentially what I asked you to do was let go of control—to let someone gently rock your arm from side to side while you meditated. I would guess for many of you this was a little awkward, and perhaps, so outside of your experience—say, how you define what meditation is—that you had trouble making sense of what you were supposed to be feeling or thinking or experiencing. You probably wanted to take back the control of your arm, or you may not have completely relinquished control. Often when we talk about spiritual exploration, it is all about letting go of control, opening yourself up to something new, different, something that might offer some insight or new awareness, something that opens your mind and heart.
However this meditation might also give you some insight into what it can be like to be a woman in a patriarchal society, where someone else makes decisions for you and exerts control over your body—think about the laws in some states that are obstructing a woman’s right to have an abortion.
In the book, Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions, there is an interesting chapter on a Feminist Model for Spiritual Direction. The author, Novene Vest, asks us to consider looking at our spiritual work through a feminine lens. Vest says that telling a woman to “let go” to gain some insight doesn’t work well; Vest suggests that women might instead want to explore how to gain personal authority and identify a voice in a culture that minimizes or attempts to suppress their own voice. She goes on to consider the commonly used metaphor for spiritual work of taking a journey, but offers this: “Might not a woman be more likely to find freedom in an image that suggests a safe [enough] place … to conceive and then give birth to a child? What would be the effect of thinking of our basic spiritual practice as involving the rhythms of nesting, gardening, creating a place of beauty…[imagining] a place long treasured, where we had enjoyed watching the play of light and shadow shift with the seasons and the years…cherished the rhythms of aging and dying and birthing again as they appear in the cycle of all living things.”
When I was new to Unitarian Universalism, I was exposed to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. These stages were linear, as you developed spiritually you expanded your understanding of religion and your connection with others. You progressed from a more childlike modeling of your parent’s religious beliefs to rejecting them, to understanding the paradox of spiritual beliefs to putting aside your personal needs to live your spirituality through helping others. I didn’t realize at the time that this spiritual model is hierarchical and patriarchal in nature. Getting better, faster, stronger in your spirituality.
Let’s remove that masculine lens and look at spirituality through a feminine lens. Let’s explore Maria Harris’s Dance of Spirit. “She envisions the spiritual life not as a linear movement, but as a dance; a process not oriented toward a goal, but rather one of enjoyment, of rhythm and shared pleasure. This dance she envisions has 7 steps, moving toward the center and then back out again, emphasizing the role of [spirit, humanity, god/goddess] at each step.” Here are her steps: Awakening—awakening from something, coming alive to your senses and opening up to wonder. Discovering—with new awareness of who you are, with a willingness to say yes to life and to yourself. Creating—a time of deep connections with a sense of brooding or discovering self as a container for new life. Dwelling—stillness at the center, at home, in deep connection with spirit, humanity, god/goddess. Nourishing—beginning to move out from the center, with a practice that nurtures you, and getting the support of others. Traditioning—the good that you experience begins to overflow from you, you are cherishing, teaching, modeling, and you creatively integrate with others. And Transforming—giving birth to your renewed self, not just for yourself, but for the world. This stage involves listening, rejoicing, as well as mourning and bonding. Then the dance begins again at Awakening. Growth in this dance is about both having right answers and asking good questions. Strength is understood as connections, relationships and mutuality.
Feminist Theology is about a willingness to buck the patriarchy, to rebel against having your identity defined by anyone other than yourself, to be willing to be moved and transformed by new ideas, new concepts, new ways of seeing life. Feminism benefits everyone. It is through centering women’s experiences in our narratives that we, humankind, can begin to see the world in a different way than we have been taught.
As I deepen my understanding of a Feminist Theological worldview, it seems very Unitarian Universalist, at least how we aspire to be, if we allow ourselves to live outside the patriarchal norms of our society. We Unitarian Universalists strive to fearlessly discern who we are as spiritual beings. And we, like our forebears, do not allow our spiritual work to be restricted by the overculture’s messaging. Perhaps it is a journey or perhaps it is building a safe space, perhaps it is being out of control or perhaps it is finding your personal agency; we Unitarian Universalists can learn to be open to all these ways of searching for and living our spiritual truths. The first step is Awakening to the Patriarchal Paradigm in which we live and coming alive to new ways of being and seeing, and embracing wonder. Let the dance begin.