Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
The Divine Feminine
By Roxanne Fequiere
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Long before I was tasked with reciting bits of Shakespeare or reluctantly performing scansion on some departed poet’s work, I was immersed in Scripture.
Perhaps immersion calls to mind visions of daily bible study or zealot parents, and while I did attend Catholic school for fifteen years, I’m talking about immersion in a much less obvious sense. Scripture came to me in the form of prayers that I could recite verbatim—“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”—long before I knew what the words were actually referencing; in the form of stories about animals marching two by two onto an ark to escape the flood, read aloud in a tone not far off from that used for tales of giant beanstalks and golden eggs. The context came later, and by the time I’d reached high school, we actually did do some studying of the Bible, but the solemnity, repetition, and magnificence of those sacred texts seeped into my brain long before I actually encountered them in text format.
Reading the Bible is a bit like reading Shakespeare in that while there are deeply relatable sentiments woven into many of the verses, it takes a bit of practice before a newcomer can get familiar with the language in which it’s embedded. Burning bushes and pillars of salt are one thing, but stories about, say, Jesus visiting the home of two sisters—Mary, who sits at his feet listening to everything he has to say, and Martha, who is exasperated at having to get the house in order while her sister does nothing—have always been much more my speed. The reason? Because despite the moral of the story being that Martha ought to behave more like Mary, here’s the thing: I’m such a fucking Martha.
Growing up, I was taught that the Bible was a book that could provide guidance, answers, direction. It was not a book in which one was supposed to find oneself for its own sake; if you identified with Job, for instance, who suffers endlessly but innocently, there is a lesson to be learned: namely, to take it on the chin and trust that God’s got your back. There’s a lesson in the story of Martha and Mary as well, but from the moment I first encountered it, I knew that I would always be a Martha and there was no getting around it. Sorry, Jesus, but if you visit me at home, I’m gonna fuss about and make sure everything is just right for you, and I’m not going to be made to feel bad about it, either.
I’m sure my teachers would have preferred that I focus more on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but I was focused on supporting characters like Martha, and bad girls like Herodias, Salomé, Delilah, and the OG, Eve. I adored the story of the Visitation; as a girl who longed for a sister but was blessed with several girl cousins, the idea of traveling a long distance to attend to one of them while we were both pregnant made sense to me. What could be more fun? It’s at the moment when Mary first appears on Elizabeth’s doorstep that the soon-to-be mother of God’s beatific status becomes clear, and Elizabeth tells her as much: “She spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed [art] thou among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of thy womb.”
How apt. It’s almost always the women in my life who speak loudest in exaltation of other women, who see divinity where the world has explicitly declared it does not reside. Even when handed a holy book crafted by and largely written about men, my eyes lingered on the places where the women were. In some small way, I’ve always sensed that womanhood is touched with something of the divine, even as my fleeting faith tradition dwindled down to nearly nothing in the years following my parochial school education.
As many who were raised Catholic can tell you, most of us don’t have an off switch. We still cringe involuntarily when certain sins are committed, thinking of an entity above keeping tally of our venial and mortal transgressions. We still make plans to baptize our children if we ever have them—just in case. When I say my faith tradition dwindled, I mean I haven’t cracked open a Bible since it was last assigned for homework, and I only show up to church when someone’s getting married in one. I’m still very much grappling with thoughts of faith and religion and where I stand, but good stories are good stories. I’ve kept the ones with me that meant something to me as a child, but the more I dwell on it, the more I feel compelled to seek out other stories, ones in which women are allowed to boldly and loudly claim divinity—for themselves. This, my last stretch of an extended bookish year, seemed as good a time as any to begin.