We called my preaching gown "the big blue balloon."
“The Atlantic” has been carrying an article about hoarding, but my little project sorting file drawers and banker’s boxes of papers the past few days is not about hoarding. Rather it’s about dealing with procrastination. I saved these files with the idea that I’d write them up some day. That day has come. It’s write or pitch out. Two giant garbage bags down and plenty more to go. But also some forgotten treasures.
Today’s boxes were about the UU ministry — 1978 to 82 at seminary and 82 to 88 in ministry on the prairie. It took courage to read through about thirty evaluations, self-analysis, test results, plans for development and so on. People didn’t exactly hold back, esp. me. In fact, that’s one of my failings. But all of this stuff was ABOUT me, mostly pretty accurate and almost all well-put. Sometimes irrelevant. The worst part is that if the evaluation was glowing, the writers wanted to enlist me in their lives on their terms. I felt that as domination and unjustified ownership.
Much of what’s in this pile was written by very shrewd and generous people. The question is always whether I can hear it, even now.
Most of this stuff was outdated and useless, but I found enough material to make a nice little self-published book about women in ministry in Montana in the 19th century. No one would actually pay to print, advertise and distribute it, but all I’ll have to do is set it up as a PDF and then everyone will steal it off the Internet. I’m not joking. One resource is a xerox of a book I got from the Lewis and Clark library in Helena. When I checked the book back in, they lost it. Probably someone stole it. It was a rare copy of the biography of the minister’s wife who inspired the Tiffany window in the Helena theatre that was built as the First Unitarian Church in Helena. I was ordained on the stage of that theatre, on the set of “Death of a Salesman.”
When I went to seminary, and part of the reason I wanted to be UU clergy, was that the occupants of that vocation were male, brilliant, powerful, thoughtful and caring people, the way we imagined famous writers probably were. Many women react to such men by trying to seduce them — regardless of pre-existing commitments such a family. None of such stellar men were interested in me as a person. But I thought I had the chops to be like them, which might be even better.
Remarkably, a lot of those men reached out to me as an equal, gave me advice, a little lift, some money, encouragement, connections. What I was blind to was the slow sinking of the prestige of both ministry and UUism (this was before the sexual kinks were public), the diminishing number of promising candidates who found better jobs, the general weakness of many male aspirants, the mounting costs of running an institution whether it were seminary or denominational bureaucracy. The men who gave the movement so much glory and glamour had often been reacting to WWII and they were aging out.
At the same time the “priesthood of all believers,” which was supposed to encourage everyone to minister to everyone else, became a leveling movement, wanting to name everything a ministry, “the ministry of the wastepaper-emptiers”. Also at the same time came the stigmatized people to demand participation as a way forward, introducing the politics of the shredder. Business as usual since the first monotheists in the Middle East began their march. There’s been a lot of mischief, most of it invisible and very little of it conscious.
Women came as healers, maintainers, flatterers, princesses and even Cassandra. Many of them have picked up the hardest tasks and gotten them done. But the general trend has been away from theology to therapy.
Here’s something you’re all welcome to steal: it’s a just-for-fun set of images of women in ministry.
THE MERMAID: The goer between worlds. The sacrificer for love. The wounded healer. The swimmer in depths. The singer in the moonlight. The faithful one in the face of betrayal. She who may sing and not be heard. The dreamer of sunlight. The inaccessible one who is no one’s mother.
THE GOOSEGIRL: She who protects and feeds the foolish. She who is simple and idly dreams. She who is childish and loves the earth. She who allows time to pass unheeded and unmarked, except by rising and retiring, or eating and drawing water. She who charms with simplicity and who is secretly a princess.
THE SPARROW: The tiny and vulnerable one who goes everywhere among the others and is not marked except by God. She who is constantly hungry and busy and fluttering, keeping away death out of sheer will to live.
THE GIRL ON THE SWING: Sometimes she is a small child who loves the wind and the movement. Sometimes she is covered in satin, lace and rosebuds, wearing many petticoats, and laughing at the people around her who are so solemn.
MINERVATHENA: She who seeks wisdom and justice. She who is austere and demanding and learned. She who punishes, but only as deserved. She who helps the heroes.
THE WOLF: She who is untamed but loyal to the pack. She who nourishes cubs not her own. She who is alone and howls at the moon and lives in a burrow. She who tears at meat with dripping jaws but takes some home for the small and weak. She who knows the way of the world.
THE WANDERER/THE ATONER: She who wanders the earth like Demeter, weeping for that which is lost and searching for the path back to the garden. She who out of stubbornness has lost her way. She who must climb over mountains and walk down valleys and find they lead to yet more mountains and yet more valleys.
THE WEAVER: She who sees the cloth of life and puts the threads in order. The workers who sings at work. The maker of order, the preventer of rips, the clother in linen, the maker of the smooth bed and the white table.
BIG MARY MOONSHINE: The jokester. The vulgar one. The clown with the slapstick.
THE MEDICINE WOMAN: Th very old woman of virtue who fasts for the community. She who knows all the earth and skies and is courted by Gods. She who cannot be destroyed, for she is many, she is many.