In May of this year, I led a class at my church that looked at Scripture from a feminist perspective. In this introduction to feminist theology and spirituality, we surveyed the writings, artwork, and music compositions of contemporary Catholic women. Included in our study were theologians who call themselves womanist and others who name themselves mujeristas.
Following up on that theme, I just finished reading No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality by Womanist Theologian Diana L. Hayes (Orbis, 2016). This work is a compilation of ten of Hayes’ essays on and about spirituality, drafted from her perspective as a womanist and published between 1992 and 2009. Hayes writes very personally from her own experience. While I don’t, and can’t, share her experiences, I find inspiration in her stories and I found common feelings with some of my own experiences. “I like to read, anything and everything I could get my hands on. I loved to study . . . I loved learning languages.” (p. xix) Reading Hayes’ essays encourages me to tell my own story.
What is womanist spirituality? In the words of Diana L. Hayes, “womanist spirituality is the encounter of black women and Jesus spelled out in song, poetry, novels, and memoirs that speak of the everlasting struggle as they continue to move themselves and their people one step closer to the Promised Land.” (p. xxvi) The term womanist comes from poet and author Alice Walker who sought a descriptive term for “audacious, courageous, bold and daring” black women that did not restrict them with definitions already developed by others who had not shared their experiences, for example, (mostly white) feminist theologians and (mostly male) black theologians. Womanist theology seeks to bring the presence and activity of black women to the forefront, rather than the background, of the church’s awareness and dialogue. (p. 107)
The title of the book is taken from the poem “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes.
“Well, son, I’ll tell you
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
In identifying herself as womanist, Hayes gives us insight into the common experiences of black women in the United States. We begin to see God, life, situations, tragedies, etc. through the lens of black women with Hayes’ education, background, and economic circumstances. For example, the experience of many black women who were caught in the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was very different from that reported in the media, by mostly white middle-class journalists. The stories of Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, for example, are told very differently from the perspective of women than from that written by the four evangelists. And they are written differently from a womanist perspective than from that of white European feminists.
Reading Hayes’ work encourages me to name my own experiences and gives me the confidence to interpret Scripture and build a spirituality that is my own — not unique to me, of course, but held in common with others of similar background and culture. For the most part in the Catholic Church, Scripture and Tradition have been interpreted for us by white European men. I am a lay Catholic woman pastoral minister and educator of French Canadian descent. That’s a pretty wide circle of women with whom I share common experiences. May we all begin to tell our own stories of our encounters with God along our respective journeys.