Talitha Cumi: Waking up the Divine Feminine

Talitha Cumi: Waking Up the Divine Feminine

Mark 5: 21-43
The Raising of Jairus's Daughter

When Jesus had crossed over again to the other side, a large crowd thronged around him as he stood on the shore. When one of the rulers of the synagogue, a man called Jairus, saw Jesus, he threw himself at his feet. ‘My little daughter is dying. Come and lay your hands on her so that she can be healed and live,’ he begged.  So Jesus went with him.
            A great crowd pressed upon him. There was a woman who’d had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who’d undergone a lot of suffering at the hands of many doctors, but despite spending all her money on medical treatment, none of the doctors had been able to help her and her condition hadn’t improved at all; in fact, it had deteriorated. She’d heard about Jesus and, coming up behind him in the crowd, she touched his clothing, because she’d told herself, ‘If I can only touch his coat I’ll be healed!’ Straightaway the flow of blood dried up and she felt in her body that she’d been cured of her condition. But Jesus, sensing that power had gone out of him, turned round to the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ His disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd milling around you and you say, “Who touched me”!’ But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. The woman, conscious of what had happened to her, and trembling with fear, fell down before him and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be free of your sufferings.’
            While he was speaking to her, some people came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house and said, ‘Your daughter has died; why bother the teacher anymore?’ Jesus overheard, and he said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.’ He allowed no one to accompany him except Peter, James, and James’ brother John. They went into the house of the synagogue ruler, and he saw a great commotion, people crying and wailing. Going inside he said to them, ‘Why are you weeping and making such a racket. The little girl is not dead; she’s asleep.’ They laughed at him, but he threw them all out and taking the child’s mother and father along with his companions he went into the child’s room. Holding her hand, he said to her, ‘Talitha koumi,’ which means ‘Little girl, I’m telling you to wake up!’ The girl got up immediately and started walking around. She was twelve years old. And they were overcome with astonishment, but Jesus ordered them all to keep quiet about it, and he told them to give the child something to eat.

Extract from ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier

It was an afternoon of bright haze, the sunlight sourceless and uniform. Ruby examined the trees and judged solemnly that the apples were making tolerably well. Then, out of the blue, she looked at Ada and said, Point north. She grinned at the long delay as Ada worked out the cardinal directions from her recollection of where the sun set. Such questions were a recent habit Ruby had developed. She seemed to delight in demonstrating how disorientated Ada was in the world. As they walked by the creek one day she had asked, What’s the course of that water? Where does it come from and what does it run into? Another day she had said, Name me four plants on that hillside that in a pinch you could eat. How many days to the next new moon? Name two things blooming now and two things fruiting.
            Ada did not yet have those answers, but she could feel them coming, and Ruby was her principal text. During the daily rounds of work, Ada had soon noted that Ruby’s lore included many impracticalities beyond the raising of crops. The names of useless beings – both animal and vegetable – and the custom of their lives apparently occupied much of Ruby’s thinking, for she was constantly pointing out the little creatures that occupy the nooks of the world. Her mind marked every mantis in a stand of ragweed, the corn borers in the little tents they folded out of milkweed leaves, striped and spotted salamanders with their friendly, smiling faces under rocks in the creeks. Ruby noted little hairy liverish poisonous-looking plants and fungi growing on the damp bark of dying trees, all the larvae and bugs and worms that live alone inside a case of sticks or grit or leaves. Each life with a story behind it. Every little gesture of nature made to suggest a mind marking its life as its own caught Ruby’s interest.
            So as they sat on the blanket, drowsy and full from lunch, Ada told Ruby that she envied her knowledge of how the world runs. Farming, cookery, wild lore. How do you come to know such thing? Ada had asked.
            Ruby said she had learned what little she knew in the usual way. A lot of it was grandmother knowledge, got from wandering around the settlement talking to any old woman who would talk back, watching them work and asking questions. Some came from helping Sally Swanger, who knew, Ruby claimed, a great many quiet things such as the names of all plants down to the plainest weed. Partly, though, she claimed she had just puzzled out in her own mind how the world’s logic works. It was mostly a matter of being attentive.

One Sunday last year I bought the Sunday Times. I don’t normally read the Murdoch press, but I was in London and I had some hours to kill before catching the train home, so I bought a nice thick newspaper to help me while away the time.
            Whatever newspaper I read, I always pay special attention to the letters, and on this occasion I was struck by the fact that every single letter was written by a man. There wasn’t even a letter signed with an ambiguous initial. They were all by a Tom, a Dick, or a Harry. (Or a Sebastian, a Barrington, or a Tarquin.)
            Well, you’re probably thinking, that may be true of the Sunday Times, which is not known for its liberal sympathies, but surely this doesn’t apply to the Guardian. Surely the Guardian would give female letter-writers 50% of the available space. Sadly, no. Even in the Guardian women don’t feature nearly as prominently as men, and on one occasion, Saturday 23rd January 2016, every single letter was written by a man. I generally read the ‘I’ these days and there have been occasions where it, too, has featured only men on its letters page. (Yesterday’s Times contained fourteen letters; 2 were by women.)
            What the careful reader will also find is that the subject-matter of female letters – when they do appear – is not quite the same as that of the male letters. The big political and economic questions seem to be the preserve of men. When the women address such topics, there seems to be less focus on abstract analysis and more on the direct effect of such issues on our daily lives. Of course, these are not watertight categories, but in general this principle seems to apply. It’s a bit like the old joke. When asked to describe the division of labour in her household, a woman replied: ‘My husband makes the big decisions and I make the small decisions’. ‘What are the big decisions?’ ‘Whether we should remain in the EU, whether we should keep our nuclear deterrent, whether the NHS is safe in the hands of the Tories and things like that’.  ‘And what are the small decisions?’ ‘Where we should live, where our kids should be educated, how we should decorate the house, where we should go on holiday, the kind of food we should eat, and other minor matters.’
            One area in which there is an uncontested sharp divide between male and female is crime. For a recent TV programme, Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing artist, went to Skelmersdale in Lancashire in search of what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, and he started by reminding us that 94% of all crime is committed by men. Most murderers are men; most burglars are men; most muggers are men; most rapists are men; virtually all cases of grievous bodily harm are committed by men. Cyber-crime seems to be a male preserve as is the random massacring of innocents in schools and shopping-malls which seems to be occurring more and more frequently these days.
Rioting, looting, demonstrating, shouting, fighting, stone-throwing; all done by men. Look at the recent footage of the clashes between rival fan groups in the European football tournament this very weekend. Where are the women?
Most prisoners are men. In January of last year (2015) there were 84,731 people in British prisons and 80,915 of them were men (Jessica Abrahams, The Telegraph onLine, 13th January 2015.) This means that men are twenty times more likely to commit imprisonable offences than women. Things even out a bit when it comes to low-level crime such as shoplifting, but even here men predominate. For example, in last Thursday’s edition (9th June) of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, the Magistrates’ Court Report listed 28 offenders and 22 of them were men.
            If we consider – as we liberals tend to – that crime is basically a result of social deprivation, lack of education, early exposure to violence in the home and the like – then we have to ask why it is that these things don’t seem to affect young women in the way that they affect young men.
            So, what possible connection can there be between writing letters to the press and crime? The answer – given by Grayson Perry, although he didn’t concern himself with writing to the press - is ‘maleness’. There is something in the male psyche which seems to demand attention, recognition, which needs to be noticed, to be celebrated.
            The ancient world was aware of this. In Homer’s Iliad, written down about 2,700 years ago, but probably even older than that, we get a stark picture of this feature of maleness. What the Greek man desired more than anything else was kleos. This is generally translated as ‘glory’ or ‘honour’, but it comes from a verb which means ‘to hear’ and it means ‘what other people hear about you, even after your death’. This was more important than length of life, comfort, riches, or even pleasure. Reputation was everything. The hero of the Iliad is the great warrior Achilles. In Book IX (lines 412-417), we learn that his mother, the goddess Thetis, has told him that he has two possible destinies: one is that he can die a hero’s death at Troy; the other that he can go home and enjoy a long and happy life. Achilles chose death in battle because this would ensure maximum kleos.
            And it’s worth remembering that the Trojan War was fought over Helen, who had been taken from her husband, Menelaus, by Paris, and avenging this one act of betrayal was to take ten years, ‘launch a thousand ships’, cause thousands of deaths, leave thousands of widows and orphans, and destroy a city. Men don’t need much of a reason to fight, as Salvador Dali illustrated in his picture ‘Battle over a Dandelion’.

Salvador Dali: Battle over a Dandelion

We middle-class, educated, prosperous liberals wouldn’t choose death in battle like Achilles. ‘Give me a long life with plenty of money to indulge my desires and I will rest content with my meagre reputation,’ most of us think. But for the young Skelmersdale man, who, unlike us, has little hope of demonstrating his prowess in relatively harmless ways – such as writing to the papers - the prospect of what Shakespeare calls ‘the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth’ has its appeal. These are, in Wilfrid Owen’s words, ‘Young men, ardent for some desperate glory,’ and they are prepared to pay almost any price to get it. What do we hear so often when young lads are asked about why they beat somebody up? ‘He disrespected me, man.’
Grayson Perry even recognises this need for what the youngsters call ‘respect’ and what the ancient Greeks called kleos in himself, and I think that, if we are honest, most of us men would have to acknowledge its presence somewhere within us. And the results of it are everywhere to be seen.
             Coincidentally, as I was writing this on Thursday, I looked on Facebook and saw a post from Patrika Mani, a member of the Dublin Unitarian congregation. It was a letter to her kids about school sports day. This is part of what she wrote:

I do not care whether you win or lose; I do care that you give it your all and never give up. I don’t care whether someone else cheated; I do care that you are honest and decent and fair. I don’t care whether you are the best at anything; I do care that you will always know your self-worth no matter what happens. I don’t care whether you are popular; I do care that you are kind and respectful to everyone you meet.

            Even if I hadn’t mentioned that Patrika is a woman, you would know almost for a certainty that this piece was composed by a woman. Men don’t think like that or write like that. Men like winners and losers. Men like straight lines, bottom lines, and league tables. Even St. Paul must put faith, hope, and charity in their order of importance! It’s the male way. And we live in a man’s world. Men set the agenda. More and more women are becoming involved in public life and this can only be to the good. But, all too often, the women who do achieve power do so by out-menning the men, by playing the men at their own game.
            But there are two genders (at least, but we won't go into that today!). The Bible tells us, and experience teaches us, that God made us ‘male’ and ‘female’, but the male polarity has dominated throughout history, and we couldn’t eliminate it even if we wanted to - and we don’t want to because, despite its negative aspects, it has given us so much. But what about the other gender?
That little story I read from the Gospel, in which Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, is a profound allegory of the need to reawaken the female in our individual selves, in our world and in our religion. Jairus is a ‘ruler of the synagogue’; he is the one in charge. His name is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Jair, the name of one of the 'judges', 'rulers' of Israel in the Old Testament. All we know about him is that he had 'thirty sons, who rode on thirty donkeys and ruled thirty cities (Judges 10:4). Masculine credentials, indeed!. The Jairus in the Gospel story symbolises the masculine aspect of Judaism, but Judaism’s tender feminine qualities, represented by his twelve-year-old daughter, are in danger of suffocation under countless masculine codes of discipline. Jesus says to her, ‘Talitha Cumi,’ ‘Little girl, wake up!’ And when she does wake up, he tells her parents to give her something to eat. Feed her. Wake up the moribund feminine and nurture it. (The story of the Woman with the constant Blood Flow, which appears in the middle of the story of Jairus’s daughter, emphasises the same idea. This woman had been haemorrhaging for twelve years; the life had been draining from her and from the feminine dimension of Judaism which she represents, and she was considered unclean; Jesus stanched the blood flow. The symbolism is clear, isn’t it?)
            What is the feminine? It’s not make-up and skirts. It is a sense of universal connection. It is being comfortable with mystery. It is compassion and co-operation. It is resting content with ambiguity. It is trusting to instinct. It is the realisation that logic and reason are not the only ways we have of arriving at understanding. It is the ‘grandmother knowledge’ that Ruby talks about in Cold Mountain – knowledge of the rhythms and cycles of life gained by intimate acquaintance and careful observation. It is preferring the open-ended poetic to the closed-off prosaic.
            Interestingly, the novelist Samuel Butler, who translated Homer into English, thought that the Odyssey – Homer’s second volume – was possibly written by a woman. Why? Because, unlike the Iliad, which reads like a paean to maleness, the Odyssey celebrates precisely those things that Achilles rejected – longing, going home, the pleasures of home, living in tranquillity, fidelity to family. Indeed, in one passage of the Odyssey (Book 11 lines 488-491), Odysseus meets the spirit of the dead Achilles in the Underworld and Achilles tells him that he would rather be a slave with no land and nothing much to live on, ploughing someone else’s field, than be king over all the dead. No thought there about the glories of a heroic death in battle.
I have spent my life involved in aspects of human experience which spring from the feminine polarity. Religion is one of these, which is why most of its devotees are women, but control of it has been usurped by men and men always seem to want to set boundaries, to promulgate divisive creeds, to issue anathemas, to fight over trivialities, to gain domination, to talk about ‘the one true faith’. But religion, as a creative response to the numinous, to what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum atque fascinans, - the frightening but alluring mystery of life – religion as a way of connecting and celebrating rather than of excluding and explaining, is very much an expression of the feminine.
            I have been a student of one element of ‘grandmother knowledge’, the cycles of the solar system and the rhythms of the earth, for exactly five decades. It’s called astrology, but the male psyche has nothing but contempt for it or for many of the other ‘non-rational’ ways of understanding the world. In fact, not too long ago such things were called witchcraft (they probably still are) and their practitioners were burned or imprisoned. But we don’t burn witches today, we just ridicule them, call them primitive or superstitious, exclude them from positions of power, or make sure that they don’t get much media time. Symbolically and physically the female is raped because she is still considered ‘unclean’.
            But astrology is one of those areas of investigation and practice – Reiki is another - which is dominated by women. The latest edition of The Astrological Journal has more articles by women than by men. There’s not a single philosophical, theological, or scientific journal in the world about which you could say that.

Grayson Perry

            Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that philosophy, theology, and science are pointless, nor am I suggesting that all men exhibit ‘maleness’ and all women ‘femaleness’, and you know perfectly well that I’m not suggesting that. It is a continuum. We have masculine women and feminine men; we have men involved in Reiki and women involved in Physics. As the Kinks sang many years ago in their song Lola – ‘it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world’. Yes, it is, and it’s all the better for being so. Grayson Perry himself is a perfect example of the male and female conjoined, both outwardly in the way he dresses, and inwardly in the way he thinks. The masculine and the feminine exist in each of us. But the feminine has been neglected, spurned, squashed, raped, feared, buried under piles of dogmas and exclusions.
            Now is the time for us to reacquaint ourselves with her, to rediscover her, to begin at last to honour her.
‘Talitha cumi’. Wake up, you poor, abused, misunderstood, little girl, because we need you more than ever.


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