Penitence (Mary Magdalene is my Homegirl)

As far back as I can remember, Mary Magdalene has been an important figure to me*.  If I was going to do a moment of pocket psychology… I wasn’t actively raised Catholic, but my mother was.  So I consider that I was raised culturally Catholic, if not religiously so.  When my spirituality and my sexuality were emerging, the only figure I came across who was a woman – and an independent and sexual woman – was Mary Magdalene.  And so she became central to my developing spirituality.  But not Mary Magdalene as she’s traditionally portrayed.  We create our goddesses and gods; we create our mythologies.  Without this entry devolving into a vast thesis, the Mary Magdalene of my mythology is a powerful woman, a sexual being, a temple priestess, the archetypal prostitute, consort of Jesus – his equal.

Some of this is bourne out in other mythologies and theories – see the novels “The Moon Under Her Feet” by Clysta Kinstler and “The Wild Girl” by Michele Roberts, and Starbird’s book on the spirituality of Mary Magdalene, “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar”.  Some of it is from my own imaginings and meditations.  Of course, I rejected one of the major aspects Mary Magdalene is traditionally associated with – penitence.  I read that as weakness, as the church wanting to cow a powerful woman.

I’m older now and I guess a bit wiser.  More importantly, I’m out the other side of some fairly wild years.  And I’m slowly realising that there’s room for penitence in my life.  I am still realising and coming to terms with this, so this entry is part of my journey; not a destination.

Not everything I did in the years where Wild Leena reigned was bad by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, those years delighted me.  They formed me and bettered me.  I did a lot of great stuff.  I helped a lot of people through sex work, and I had a world of fun.

It was (forgive me if this sounds weird) Mary Magdalene who inspired me into sex work.  She was with me as I considered it (and I to-ed and fro-ed for a long time on that), with me when I walked into that massage parlour, with me with that first client.  She was also the guardian of my wider sexual exploration.  But at a certain point, things changed and eventually crossed the line. I became a thorough hedonist – I thought only of my own pleasure in any given moment, not of any consequences to myself or others. And that’s no way to live.

And so I did some damage – to myself and to others.  I lost control of the sex work at times and wound up doing some things I’m not proud of.  I manipulated people who didn’t derserve to be manipulated.  When I was taking a lot of P, I often forgot that other things were important.  I lied to friends and I hurt people who were important to me.  I had affairs with married men – most notably a four-year-long love affair.  And in the course of that, I did some things so awful that I can’t even bring myself to write them down.  Although we were secretive as all get-out, and as far as I know his family is still unaware of our affair, I caused so much hurt to his family in subtle, insidious ways.

I have carried a lot of guilt and shame because of some aspects of my history, and it has hurt my present.  For a long time, when my life was really out of control, I truly believed my life would be a cautionary tale.  I thought I would do something fucking stupid while on P and get arrested (I did do some fucking stupid things while on P, but thankfully managed to avoid doing any lasting damage to anyone or anything).  I thought I’d be killed by some random guy I inadvisedly hooked up with (we’re not talking your average bar hook-up – I was hanging around gang members, criminals, the sort of people who have handguns in their bedside cabinets).  I thought I’d catch a billion STDs.  I thought I’d be some sad old lady at 40, shagging anyone who’d have me for the drugs they had.

But that’s not how things turned out.  I sorted out my life.  I gave up drugs.  I stopped indulging my poisoned, desperate sexuality.  And then I met the man who is now my fiance, and we have a beautiful life together.  We love each other, we have fun together, we have lovely friends, we live in a great house, we can take fabulous holidays together and there’s really not too much we have to worry about.

Except that for the longest time, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.  I had so expected my life to be shit because of my actions that it felt like the universe had done some massive miscalculation.  I was supposed to be PUNISHED!  I wasn’t supposed to live a great life with a man who loves me!  I genuinely struggled in the early days of our relationship, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the punishment to kick in.  My wonderful man was so patient with me through those times, just being with me and maintaining, whether I wanted to believe it or not, that he wasn’t going anywhere.  Eventually, I came to accept that it was true, that some bizarro roll of the dice had landed me here.  I still felt like the columns didn’t add up, though; like I didn’t deserve the life I’d found myself in.  I still felt that I ought to be punished.

And then the image of the penitent Mary Magdalene came to me.  Slowly, slowly, and I’m still learning to understand what it means.  But I’m figuring out that maybe there is power in penitence after all.  That I can acknowledge that SOME of the things I done in the past have been wrong, without writing off my entire past.  That I can accept their wrongness and accept the things learnt from that and move on from it.  That there isn’t some divine scoreboard, wherein this much wrong-doing equals this much punishment.  That someone can do wrong and still be a worthy person.

Penitence is self-reflection and self-forgiveness, as well as acknowledged the wrongs.  Penitence is truth, and truth is powerful.

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* Though I label myself Wiccan, Gnosticism is another important string in my spirituality. Jesus is also an important spiritual figure to me, though not Christ and he’s not as central to me as Mary Magdalene. But that’s a story for another time.

Dianic Wicca and Women Without Wombs

To be honest, although it sounds lame, my spiritual “aha!” moment came reading The Mists of Avalon at 13.  That was literally when I realised that Christianity was not in fact the only spiritual option (Yeah, the city I grew up in was pretty monocultural).  As far back as I can remember, I had tried to engage with spirituality.  I’d tried praying on my knees before bed like they did in the picture books.  I’d tried reading the Bible, tried talking to Jesus.  It all just left me cold.  But The Mists of Avalon opened up a whole other world of possiblities for me.

That was in the early ’90s.  Back then, I’d never heard of the terms “wicca” or “pagan”.  There had been no Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no Charmed, no entire shelf in every bookshop filled with everything from How to be a Teenage Witch to The Dark Goddess and the New Mythologies.  There was no internet (now, that’s showing my age!).  OK, the internet existed when I was 13, but I had no access to it and didn’t know anyone who did.  What there was was two books in the local independent bookstore: Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Zsuzsanna Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries.  I saved up my pocket monies and bought them both.  The Spiral Dance made a lot of sense to me, but it was The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries which really resonated deeply.  Zsuzsanna Budapest’s woman-centric Dianic wicca was the spiritual framework I had been looking for. (A little Wikipedic overview for those with no blessed idea what I’m talking about.)

A good 20 years has passed since then and my spirituality has obviously grown into its own form, in some ways departing dramatically from Z Budapest’s writings, but her book will always be a significant foundation stone for me.  So I felt seriously, deeply gutted when I decided to seek her out on Twitter recently and came across this tweet:

Just recently the trannies(if they can call me names i can call them names) has disrupted and shut down a very… http://fb.me/19oGqu6hW

(The link inexplicably leads to actually a pretty interesting Ms article on transgendered feminist bloggers.)  This truncated statement didn’t look very encouraging, I have to say, but I figured maybe there was a context.  I found the rest of her statement on her Facebook page:

Just recently the trannies(if they can call me names i can call them names) has disrupted and shut down a very important feminist gathering in London. They are a very well supported male organization in skirts and make up. The other 1 percent. (actually they are more 0.03 percent of the population)but with money and male egos driving it, they are very affective. They have hijacked our words (feminism) they “invaded” our institutions by force of lawyers, (who paid them?)but they look all innocent here, as individuals. Just a bunch of words, and plenty of blahbalhbalh.

And there was worse.  Much, much dismayingly worse.  I could fill a heartbreaking entry with her transphobic vitriol, but here are a couple of tastes:

The transies fight us like Marines with lipstick.

The trannies are powerful, foul mouthed and hating us women because they are never going to be us, but they can push us aside if we whimp out.

The core of this right wing work to silence women, take away even our name, not done by the nice ts people, but the many many more who are organized, get paid, have orders and a global plan to disrupt feminism from gathering in public places. Power over women, power over where we gather, power over to intimidate, ruin your day and progress. They act like men. If they were women they would fight like women, “bond and nourish.”Instead its burning down our institutions with their rhetoric and lawyers.

Imagine a group of males banging on the door to be allowed into a all women skyclad circle. There is no sense of decency amongts them. Its occupy, and bother naked ladies.

All [sic].  And also sick.  So, it turns out one of my heroines is a paranoid transphobe who is convinced that the Big Council of Men has ordered some of their members to become transgendered just so that they can infiltrate women’s spaces, and that men would go through gender reassignment just so that they can see skyclad titties at a women’s ritual circle.  What the actual fuck?  Wouldn’t popping down to their local strip club be a seriously easier option?  Yeah.  I was going to say it’s a bit like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real, but it’s more like finding out that Santa Claus stole all your favourite toys and made a toasty bonfire with them while laughing manaically.  There were some vociferous dissenting comments on her page, but even more in support of her.  A lot along the lines of “they can’t know what it means to be a woman.  They don’t menstruate or nurture life in the wombs.”  If you feel so compelled, you can read them here.

What inspired me about Dianic wicca is working with feminine energy, which seems so much more powerful (to me) than masculine or neutral energy.  Being a woman is part of it.  Yes, menstruation feels spiritual to me, with its rhythm reflecting the lunar cycle.  When I sought long-term contraception recently, I eliminated the Mirena from my list of options specifically because it prevents mentruation, and that doesn’t seem right.  However, my ability to menstruate is not the seat of my spirituality.  I will not feel less spiritual after menopause.  I would not feel less spiritual if I had to have a hysterectomy*.  And the other supposedly wondrous things about my female body?  Creating life in my womb, nourishing my offspring at my breast?  I have no intention of doing any of that stuff.  Does that make me less spiritual, less Dianic?  Hells, no.

Ultimately, spirituality is just not about the bodies we happen to be born in (fucking duh!).  And I think an argument could be made that trans-women have more deeply embraced feminine energies than cis-women.  They’ve had to actively seek it and fight for it, through societal sublimation and discrimination.  We cis-women are passive in our feminine energies.  Moreover, I can see absolutely no reason why actual male-born, penis-having, testosterone-y males should be excluded from Dianic wicca.  If a bloke wants to work with feminine energies, more power to him, I say.  Plenty of women seem extremely happy to address a male-form god and his son.

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* Z Budapest stated for clarity that only “women with wombs” were allowed to join her women’s ceremony.  Which makes me wonder where she stands on women who have had hysterectomies.