She Who Dwells Within | July 9, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
You, God, who live next door –
If at times, through the long night,
I trouble you with my urgent knocking – this is why:
I hear you breathe so seldom. I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign! I’m right here.
As it happens, the wall between us is very thin.
Why couldn’t a cry from one of us break it down?
It would crumble easily, it would barely make a sound.
The opening quote from Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to the nearness of God…the intimacy we can have with the all-pervading spirit if we but listen…and wait. But most of all we need to understand just how thin that wall is…is there even a wall between us?
The idea of God is something that I have always had in my life, though it has evolved as my life has evolved. I have gone through addiction and recovery…a time in which I felt the need for God. It is a time when that may be all we have…there is nothing else to hold on to. More recently, I have been a counselor…helping people recover from addiction and other mental health problems. The idea of God has been important to so many people. It has brought them through some of their most difficult days. To hear God breathing next door means that we are not alone…we actually have the support of the entire universe…God’s universe.
But this “idea of God” has transformed in my lifetime. Jewish Mystic, Storyteller and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb wrote a book called She Who Dwells Within that I read in the 1990s. In this book, Gottlieb discusses the feminine nature of God…of YHVH. She tells the story of how she was given an assignment by her teacher, Elie Wiesel in the late 1970s at City College of New York. The course was entitled “Heroes in the Bible”. As Wiesel listed the so-called heroes, Gottlieb noticed that he left out all the women…from Lilith (Eve) to Rachel…from Sarah to Miriam. When she asked “What about the women?”, he replied, “You can do the women.”
This began a quest to re-introduce the feminine aspects of her religion and to dethrone patriarchy from her spiritual tradition. She began with the Jewish sacred scripture that describes the Shekinah…the feminine aspect of the divine. She wrote:
Shekinah is She Who Dwells Within,
The force that binds and patterns creation…
We live here, in Her body…
She feeds multitudes from Her flesh…
Shekinah is the catalyst of our passion,
Our inner Spiritfire, our knowledge of self-worth,
Our call to authenticity.
She warms our hearts, ignites our vision.
She is the great turning round,
breathing and pulsating, pushing life toward illumination.
Womb and Grave, End and Beginning.
All these are her names.
This description introduces a different kind of language used to describe our experience of the all-pervading presence of the Holy. It is more intimate and at the same time more inclusive of our sense of belonging to the universe…for, in addition to being She Who Dwells Within each of us, Gottlieb writes:
She is mistress of the Seas, Tree of Life,
Silvery Moon, Fiery Sun…
She is cosmos, dark hole, fiery moment of beginning.
She is dust cloud nebulae, the swirl of galaxies…
She is the intimate…the one on the other side of the thin wall…and also the cosmic…source of the ongoing mystery of creation. It is interesting that Gottlieb draws on the Jewish mystical scripture, the Kabbalah. The origin of these texts is said to have been in the 12th and 13th centuries, perhaps drawing from even earlier thought. It is interesting that this is the same time as Hildegard was writing. Did she know of these texts? We know that Hildegard had to disguise much of her thought, otherwise she would have been silenced. And she could not use the analogy of the womb and the birthing process as coming from the divine. That would mean she would have to acknowledge the body…the female body. Gottlieb is able to do this when describing the Shekinah. She wrote:
She is life loving itself into being,
Shekinah is the eros of life, limitless desire…
Now we know that even today we are uncomfortable with this kind of language, especially when it pertains to the divine. The puritan, anti-sexual way of seeing creation runs deep…especially in the Christian tradition. For Hildegard it was partially because she was a part of the church…she was a nun who had, in a way, renounced her own sexuality. It is no wonder that she shied away from using sexual metaphors in her writings. Yet her illuminations and the idea of most greening verdancy certainly call forth the female image of the womb and fertility. Hildegard knew that her message of body-soul connection…of cosmological vision of the cosmic tree that must be tended by the human being…of the feminine nature of God had to be concealed.
Even in the year 2015 author Lynn Gottlieb was probably seen by many as heretical. Here is her story at the Parliament of the World's Religions:
The following poem from my own teacher, Luisah Teish entitled, Peace NaNa, is another example of a contemporary story…a story of where we came from and upon what or whom we can rely. She writes:
Iba’che NaNa Womb of Creation
She Who Gave Birth to All Things.
From your dark depths the first spark came into Being.
Your luminous Egg exploded in the midst of Eternal Night.
Its joyous dance formed the great lights.
You Who Gave Us Sun and Moon, Earth and Sky, Body and Spirit.
Awaken from your sleep Deep Night.
Lift your eyelids and see our plight.
The children of Earth are in need of your guidance.
They await the feel of your hand.
They roll their eyes in great suspicion,
in anger and fear they strike out.
Their hearts are hard, their hands are trembling.
Amidst the rubble of war, they cry out.
Hear me Great Mother, hear your daughter.
Open your starlight thighs. Draw us back into your vulva.
mold our heads,
pat our behinds.
Change us, every cell and spirit ’til Peace possess our minds.
Blow your perfumed breath upon us,
wash us in the deep blue sea.
Suckle us on milk and honey,
oil us with the balm of love.
Return us then to this green garden,
Oh Beautiful, Generous Mother,
but this time
give us also the wisdom to see your reflection in each other.
We can see the redemption of the feminine image of the divine in Teish. She, like Gottlieb, is a powerful, wise woman creating new stories…stories that include our wholeness as people. Alternative stories are important…from the Universe Story to Gottlieb’s story of the first woman who said “no”. Stories like this can make our religion…or sense of a spiritual tradition more relevant in our own time.
Currently in my work with clients seeking psychotherapy, I have learned to appreciate the importance of story. Each person has a story. Interestingly, most of the people I work with say that they are not religious. When pressed, most admit to being spiritual (although some do not). This creates somewhat of a void where the spiritual or religious may have at one time dwelled. They are, in a way, without a story to guide them. It can also take away a major support that people could otherwise have in their life…something to hang on to during times of stress and strain…times of transition…times of upheaval. I am finding ways to work with people’s stories…the stories of their individual lives and the stories of our planet, our universe, our time. Using wisdom gleaned from psychologists and others, I am able to help clients develop a framework that can support them, despite their seeming (for the most part) lack of religious or spiritual tradition. They can access what we can all access…She Who Dwells Within…the one who lives next door…or right there in their own bodies. This One Who Dwells Within…the one who binds and patterns creation clearly feeds us from her flesh…with the riches of the verdant nature. She is indeed the catalyst of our passion, who can give us our knowledge of self-worth…our call to authenticity. As she warms our hearts and ignites our vision, may we allow her power to be the great turning round of our lives and those who share this brink of time with us. May we experience illumination and wisdom to come to our senses, to see our reflection in each other, as well as in the Earth and in the all-pervading presence and may we work for peace and justice harnessing the power of She Who Dwells Within.