I’m watching the UFC fights, Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate, and their beauty is mentioned before their incredible fighting skills.
Fuck you, Joe Rogan.
I have moved.
I have moved out of my flatshare in the east end, where the entire upstairs was covered in ugly green carpeting just a shade lighter than mould, where the shower alternately burned you or froze you, where dishes from four people inevitably formed a pile that overflowed out of the sink and onto the drying rack because our dishwasher didn’t work. I have moved out of that flat to live in the downstairs room of a house in south London, in the diocese of my new church. The only person that I share with is the landlady. I have full run of the kitchen, which is stocked with every gadget imaginable because my landlady is also a keen cook. I have an entire downstairs bathroom to myself. My room opens onto the garden, in which I’m already scheming to begin a herb garden. I have done a preliminary neighbourhood scout, have found the cheap indie cinema, the Persian deli, the myriad of one pound shops.
I have noticed that other things have also been easier. My commute into work no longer involves elbowing my way onto a cramped, sweaty tube, but a bus ride before I get onto the tube at the terminus, which ensures a blissfully empty train. My commute into church isn’t spent wandering the stuffy, dusty tunnels that is Bank station, but a bus ride that takes me straight to its door.
And we are closing in on the end of Eastertide. The sun rises earlier and sets later, and the sky has been blue with spring more often than not in the past two weeks. New green leaves and pink blossoms decorate the trees, and you remember that London can be gorgeous.
I am learning to be happy in this easiness.
I had a long conversation with one of the clergy at the cathedral. I did not realize how much I needed that conversation. Needed a conversation where I could speak freely about my spiritual journey to a man of the cloth, as it were. I told him about how I came to know God, about why, exactly, I am so frustrated with conservative, borderline fundamentalist evangelism that I came to know when I first went back to church, that I thought was the only way of doing church. I told him that I didn’t realize how I couldn’t breathe until I started coming to this cathedral, with all the incense and liturgy and rituals. I told him that coming to the cathedral was like learning God anew, and now I am completely waiting for this honeymoon period to be over and the wall to set it. Only then would I know that this faith I have is real.
He listened. He spoke. And there were many. many good things he said, one of which was, if you are happy, and you feel free, then this is what you are right now.
(or something along those lines. I remember the essence of what he said, not the exact words.)
He was telling me something that I suspected was something that I had to come to terms with sooner or later - I do not have to be suspicious of a good season. I do not have to hold my breath for it to implode, so that I can be confirmed that it isn’t real. I don’t have to be afraid of being happy.
He said another thing during that conversation, when I was talking about how bad I was at daily disciplines, and how I still force myself to do it because it is better to do it hurriedly.
It’s not primarily about going through the motions. It is about ringfencing time in your day for God. It is about stillness.
And in the proceeding week or so, I’ve realized that being suspicious of this good season makes it harder to be still. To hold my breath and to hold myself at arm’s length of what is happening will stop me from delighting in the moment. To be still is to be open to God.
So I am trying. On the bus to work, during a breather from lunch break, I am trying to be still, to have that space where I let God love me. (I stole that from a poem)
And I find that it is new, and it is comfortable, and it is easy. For now. But for now, I am delighting in this easiness.
I went in to have a personal trainer analyze my body movement a few weeks ago, courtesy the health programme at work. I told him about my martial arts training. I told him that I always favour my left leg during skipping sessions and can never left with both feet. After a series of tests he concluded that I needed to work on my stability, to develop my range of movement around my hips and that crucially, I needed to strengthen the right side of my body so that it can catch up with my left.
So every day I do a half hour programme of bridges, lunges, deadlifts and planks, all designed to improve my stability. What’s hardest about the programme depends on the day. Sometimes it is the one where I’m lying with my feet on the ground and the ball underneath my shoulder blades, my arms spread into a crucifix position while I step to the side, take my body with it. Sometimes it’s controlling my return to standing one-legged after I straighten up from a lunge. I do my best to ignore any feelings of embarrassment as I wobble and struggle for balance as I go on one foot. Instead, I will the whole of my foot from toes to heel to root itself deeper into the floor.
Sometimes I pray. Each step out to the side is a notch on the Ignatian exam, each dip a gift, each lunge an apology. Most of the time, though, I listen to music. Sometimes it’s a sermon, and sometimes it is something that is not Christian at all.
But whatever I’m doing during those exercises, be it earnestly praying or listening to Evensong or half-watching a programme about breadmaking, I am forever aware of my body. I am conscious of when my back arches too much and I need to tuck my pelvis back under to prevent straining my spine. I know that I’m doing the exercises correctly when I feel my butt strain and clench to hold up my body. I am enormously satisfied when I feel a painful soreness through my groin as sit with my heels together and press my knees to the floor. And I am grateful for this soreness, this reminder that I am alive, that my body is capable of stretching and strengthening, if only I will it.
This will not last, I know. Someday I have to watch how far I lunge for fear of injuring my knee. Someday I will not be able to do as many drills in muay thai as I can now because my body simply can’t take it anymore. So I am deliberate in uttering thanks for what I have now, for this heart pumps blood throughout my body and pumps harder so I can train better, punch faster. I am grateful for my transverse abdominals and my obliques and my hip flexors and adductors and all the myriad of muscles that I do not know the name of. I do not always have to love this body, but this body is mine, and it is mine to honour. And for my whole life I will be bound to this body - my vitality and my emotions depends on this intricate makeup of blood and organs and muscle and sinew and bone. I am grateful for the promise this body will be resurrected, one day, even if I am not entirely sure if I fully understand it yet or will understand it until the time comes.
And as I do my daily exercises, as I strengthen and stretch this body of mine, I realize that it body has something to teach me about God. After all, Jesus came to be the fullness of deity dwelling in bodily form. He knew what it was like to complete a day of good, physical toil, knew the cool relief of water running into a dry mouth and moistening a parched throat. As a carpenter, he must have always the aches and pains that come with hard labour. He knew too was trapped by a body’s necessary inconveniences, the shit, the sweat, the piss. And as I lie there, holding my arms in crucifix position as I balance on a stability ball, feeling the ache that comes from intense muay thai drilling, I think, this is how His arms were positioned when He was nailed to the cross.
Make no mistake: if he rose at all/ It was as His body, so begins John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’, where he reminds the reader that it was Jesus in the flesh and in the blood that rose, no more, no less.
There is perhaps something more theological to be said about this, and if I was a more mature Christian, maybe I could swing it. But I am not - I am someone who only stepped back into church two years ago, someone who only started earnestly to practice daily prayer two weeks ago. I am still trying my best to make the time.
So I will write this: Jesus understood bodies. He was in one himself. And by exercising, nourishing and delighting in this body, Jesus feels closer, less remote. And as I remember how he intimately understood what it is like to be human, so I am also learning a little bit more about God.
And maybe that is a kind of prayer.
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
— John Updike
Stillness is not about emptying yourself of all distractions, but to sit, despite the distractions, sometimes almost carried along with them, and yet to know that God is at the centre.
I was searching, in that period when I worried incessantly that to have doubts about a woman’s allegedly god-given submission to a man was to have a weak faith, for answers to theological arguments around gender roles. One day. through the linking upon linking that is the internet, I lighted upon a blog entry written by one Dianna Anderson. In it, she addresses the argument that female submission was justified on the basis of the trinity, an argument that had been thrown at me by many Christians at my former church, lay member and preacher alike.
Reading that entry was nothing short of relief. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only Christian I knew who was frustrated at how the Trinity was used to browbeat women in submission. Suddenly, I had to vocabulary and boldness I needed to voice my frustrations. Because not only did Dianna neatly dissect and refute the argument that female submission was meant to be a model of the Trinity, but she dared, boldly and directly, she dared to call it heretical.
When you are a new Christian finding your faith through the blogosphere, you quickly learn there are many, many good blogs out there, but there are a few blogs that stick with you, that you read regularly, that you rush to read whenever there is a new entry, because that blogger writes in such a way that resonates with your voice, or what you voice would be if you could find it. And Dianna’s voice, passionate, direct and fearless, kept me going back for more and more.
I could lean on the fierceness of her voice when I ached, tired again of the latest insinuation in church that I couldn’t be both a feminist and a Christian. I could, through reading her entries, gain a vocabulary to voice my frustrations. and once I had vented, could learn to stop my anger at certain parts of the church from causing me to lose faith in the person of Jesus.
So thank you Dianna, for never being afraid to call out injustice when you see it. Thank you for demonstrating to me that a church community is one where none of us are truly cut off from each other, and that we have a responsibility to care and advocate for the disenfranchised. Thank you for reminding me over and over again that Christ is an ally to the weak, the suffering and the marginalized, And that, that is the true character of our Lord. Thank you for your passion and love and fearlessness. Thank you for being you, from the bottom of my heart.
And people, what are you waiting for? Go read her blog. Go read her unrelenting quest to help the church be better than it can be, and join me in saying, Eshet Chayil! Woman of valour! Praise the Lord for you!
This is part of the International Women’s Day Synchroblog at Sarah Bessey’s site, in which we celebrate women who have mattered in our spiritual formation. Take a look, maybe you would like to contribute a blog of praise too.
In a section of A Room of One’ s Own, so famous it is almost a cliche, Virginia Woolf creates a fictional sister for William Shakespeare called Judith. Imagine, Woolf writes, that Judith Shakespeare was just as enamoured with the world as her brother, just as bright and quick and gifted as he was. But unlike William, Judith would not be sent to school. She would be chastised for stopping her chores to read a book, because as a girl, her purpose lay not in her genius, but in her ability to to secure a good marriage. While William would later journey to London to write plays that would endure and delight long after his death, Judith would find herself betrothed to local wool-stapler. Unable to face the prospect of a hateful marriage, Judith would run away to London. Like her brother, she would long to be in the theatre, only to be told she cannot act because she was a woman. She would have nowhere to go, nowhere to learn her craft and hone her talent. Eventually, desperate and pregnant out of wedlock, Judith would kill herself, unable to bear, as Woolf writes, the heat and violence of her poet’s heart caught and tangled in her woman’s body.
Reading Virginia Woolf at seventeen, it struck me that I could so easily have been Judith Shakespeare. I didn’t even need to be born into Elizabethan England. I just needed to stay Chinese and be born three, maybe four generations earlier, in the pre-Communist era. Like Judith, my worth would lie solely in being a wife or concubine. My feet would have been bound since childhood and I would have been crippled for life by some stupid notion of beauty. In fact, I didn’t even need to go back four generations to imagine the peril I would inherit for being a girl. China’s problem with female infanticide is infamous, thanks to a one child policy that exacerbates a long standing tradition of Chinese sexism. We even have an idiom for it - 重男轻女, literally meaning to give weight to the boys and slight the girls. That I was neither killed nor abandoned at birth, that my parents saw fit to send me to school and that I could dream of writing books were enormous, tremendous privileges.
At seventeen, feminism for me was this: that every girl should be free to read, write, learn and pursue her dreams, so that the tragedy of Judith Shakespeare would be no more.
When I was twenty-two, I decided to attend a krav-tardemet class on a whim. Krav is a martial arts solely devoted to self-defense, the guiding principle being that, no matter how small and weak you are, you can still fight. And as someone who was never the star of PE class, I wasn’t expecting much, but after that first class, and the other classes after, it was like a door had slid silently open for me.
For the first time, I stopped seeing my body as something that inconveniently got fat. I began to see my body as my ally and my friend. In punching, kicking and breaking out of a chokehold, I learned to delight in my body, learned to love the smooth, intricate flow of muscles as I swung my hips into a true punch. the ability of my heart to beat faster, my lungs to take in oxygen during a particularly hard fight. After years of thinking that self-defense was simply not to walk in a dark alley and to never let my drink out of my sight, I was learning that my body could be a weapon, capable of saving my life. And after years as seeing my body as a piece of meat, I began to understand just exactly what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made.
And I knew feminism then, not just in my head, but in my arms, my legs, my feet, my bones.
I stopped going to church as a teenager, because I partly felt that I couldn’t be really be a feminist and also a Christian. When I slowly started to make my way back to church, the same year I learned to fight, I still could not shake the feeling that the two were incompatible. While I was encouraged to read my Bible and ask questions, I was also told that it was not a woman’s place to preach or lead. To believe otherwise would be to oppose Scripture. I was also told that feminism had perverted our understanding of what Paul meant by submission in Ephesians.
And it scared me. It scared me to think that feminism, through which I so identified myself, was going against God’s will.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Jesus treated women. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman from Samaria, how Jesus spoke to her, saw her, and knew her despite the fact that being a Samaritan and having had five husbands, she would have be considered no better than dirt. And yet Jesus, God incarnate, saw fit to speak to her like his equal, saw fit to choose her to be the first person to recognize Him as the Messiah. And later, despite the fact that a woman’s testimony held no sway in first century Palestine, Mary Magdalene would proclaim, He is risen!
It has been two years since I returned to church, and I am a bit more confident in my faith, and here is what I would say about feminism and the church, and it is not just about the correct interpretation of a handful of verses written by Paul.
It is ultimately about the fact that years after that first Easter sermon, women are still oppressed. Even today, two thousand years removed from the patriarchy of Biblical time, a young girl was still shot for daring to advocate for her right to learn, women are more likely to be victims of sex trafficking, and rape culture is very much alive and present. The battle for every girl not to wind up like Judith Shakespeare is not yet finished. It may not ever be finished until the new creation comes, but that does not mean we won’t die fighting, and crucially, it is a battle that cannot be fought by women alone.
Feminism, at its best, is an endeavour of love. Love that compels us to shout, over and over again, that women are people too, made in the image of God, and we are all in this together. Love that compels us to relinquish our privileges, to listen and to demand justice for the powerless. Love, because He was the one who first loved us.
This blog is part of a series that J.R. Goudeau, Danielle Vermeer, and Preston Yancey are hosting, a three-day synchroblog devoted to exploring feminism and its importance. For more information, click here.