Monday, May 7, 2007

Veiled Community

For the past nine months I've been part of an intentionally formed and crafted group of women exploring feminist spirituality. When every chair in the circle is filled, we're 35 or so women, drawn from the greater Northeast region (at least at this moment in our lives), but otherwise representing every walk of life. We are oldish (late 60s) and youngish (early 20s), fattish and thinish, whitish and blackish, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Most intriguing, however, is how this previous set of identities intersects with our religious identities, for we are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish-curious, to begin with just the short list of how we likely name our faith.

To create more meaningful, engaged encounters with one another, the entire group is divided into wisdom circles. While chosen at random (a word that has new meaning in the quantum universe in which we dwell), the circles are actually quite representative of the whole, providing each of us with up-close and personal encounters with nearly all the faith identities sitting in the circle of the whole. These wisdom circles create a manageable space to reflect on the readings, but the most public expression of our grouping is the creation and implementation of rituals for the entire group during one of our gatherings of the year. In addition to designing the act of ritual, the wisdom circles craft visual complements to the weekend's theme.

Month after month, the mandalas positioned at the center of our circle have become more and more elaborate, and the rituals have extended past a simple litany and song to become sermons, choruses, seed plantings, champagne toasts (fit for a queen, with crowns upon our heads!)....I could go on and on. As our group was designated for the final month of circle-created rituals, we had entirely too much time to both generate our own ideas, and compare our in-our-mind creations with the groups before us. When our weekend finally arrived, I think it is safe to say we were all ready to be done. Email planning, personality co-mingling, and that strange tiredness that comes with shaking off winter and throwing ourselves headlong into spring had left us more in a state of stress than joy.

The rituals themselves were delightful, and the garden scene created by our most passionate visual artist was enough to convince me that indoors and outdoors had switched. But I felt disconnected, a state brought on by the final stresses of our collaboration and a personal encounter with the sometimes closed nature of our typically open circle. The feelings weren't washed away as I pushed my sunflower seed deep into the moist, black soil and asked God if She would make me more forgiving and open, ready to fully engage once again. When we separated into wisdom circles to further explore projects of leadership we had undertaken in the year (the source of my personal encounter with closed thinking in an open space), I was more than happy to suggest we retreat to the home of the Muslim member of our circle, certain that meeting her children and touring her apartment would distract us from the conversation.

As we giggled our way through her home, curious about whether taking off our shoes was religious or cultural (she's Turkish), whether her children spoke Turkish, Arabic or English, or whether this outspoken, veiled woman used her same sharp humor and wit at home, we began to find one another once again. We piled into her bedroom and, quite spontaneously, she selected and adorned each of us with a hijab. We had known her head only by the elaborate, decorative scarves that shaped her beauty, and yet here she was before us, short-haired, out of her hijab as she placed one upon each of us. In full color and splendor, we retreated to her kitchen table and simply spoke about our lives....current challenges, requests for prayer, compliments and playful jabs. We were once again wise in our togetherness.

We crossed the small lawn from her home to our classroom and delighted in the expressions of surprise from some of the other participants. We were converted not to Islam, but to the space of true togetherness. While she had crossed over to us in many forms at many times, we had taken a small, symbolic gesture to cross to her and honor her tradition. And for the first time in some time, I sat fully present in the wider circle. The gift of her veil returned to me my voice.

God's voice comes in light and dark, in community and solitude, from our full revealing and from a moment under a veil. Sometimes, if we're present, we hear and we truly listen.


Amy said...


thanks for sharing

Sue said...

What a beautiful experience, and one that so many people miss. For the past 8 years I've been living in very "white" communities, and there was a part of me that worried a bit, having to raise my children in that kind of environment where all they'd ever see are other children and families like their own. Now we're back here in NJ, and it's been good introducing them to more diversity. I love the fact that our church is so beautifully mixed -- Africans, Latinos, Dutch, etc. Our kids don't even blink an eye. I'm glad your experience meant a lot to you that day, visiting your friend's home. Thanks for sharing.