Last Sunday, unexpectedly, I found myself crying in a public place.
I was at the service of the First Unitarian Congregation in Toronto. The choir sang a musical version of the 23rd Psalm, an arrangement by Bobby McFerrin. It was a slow sweet melody, an unhurried heart-opening harmony of men’s and women’s voices. The lyrics referred to the “Lord” as “She,” and I smiled remembering how, thirty-five years ago, I and many others had challenged the practise of exclusively referring to the divine by masculine pronouns. For many years I have neither experienced nor conceptualized that Sacred Wholeness beyond and within all things as a Super-person, so I’m less reactive to personal pronouns regardless of gender now. Still, it was lovely to be in a place where the choice to use a wide variety of terms to point toward the Mystery we experience but cannot define reminds us of the limitations of our words.
The song reached a conclusion with an invocation of the Christian trinity, replacing Father, Son and Holy Ghost with Mother, Daughter and Holy of Holies. And I was stunned to find my eyes filling with tears. I have often heard the traditional trinity renamed. Mother/Father, Child of God, and Holy Spirit is the most common choice. Sometimes “Son” is changed to what some see as gender-neutral terms- “The Christ” or “the divine made manifest.” But I cannot recall ever hearing Son replaced by Daughter before.
I was embarrassed and mystified by my own reaction. But I sat quietly, wiped my tears away and considered what chord has been struck within. For some reason “Daughter” had stirred something- an unattended sorrow and an almost forgotten longing.
For as long as I can remember my mother has told me the same story of my birth. Although the details of the actual delivery are sketchy she never fails to tell me that my father, although excited, was “of course, disappointed” when I was born, because I was a girl and “every man wants a son as his first child, not a daughter.” She would say this as if she was stating an obvious truth, something so apparent that it hardly needed to be mentioned. And yet, she did mention it- emphatically and repeatedly. Early on I took her repetition of the story as evidence that she was disappointed that I was a girl. (I’d never gotten any sense of this disappointment from my father who, interestingly, was never present when my mother told this story.) It took me years to realize that although she may have been disappointed to have had a girl, what she was probably unconsciously expressing was her fear or belief that she, an only child, had disappointed her father - a man she adored who loved her dearly- by not being a son.
My mother was not alone in her belief that sons were better than daughters. When I gave birth to my first son, Brendan, my neighbours would come up to me on the street and ask, “Your first?” When I’d nod in reply their anxiety clearly rose as they asked, “A boy?” When I'd respond, yes, they were visibly relieved and, clearly delighted for me, would nod with relief and say, “Oh, good, good.” I wondered what they would have said if I’d told them my baby was a girl- oh, too bad, better luck next time?
Please understand me- I know where this comes from and all the analysis about the impact such attitudes have had on women and men over eons. All my adult life I have understood that personal stories and choices reflect and shape cultural and political realities that in turn impact us all. Happily some of these realities have changed.
But my response to the lyrics in Sunday’s song went below my knowledge of social norms and prejudices to an old sorrow of the heart. Even though I don’t think of or experience the Sacred as a Person, when the language used to point toward the Mystery includes familial metaphors, I am struck by the sadness of not knowing myself as a cherished daughter. Yes God the Father can also be the Great Mother but can the divine manifest in The Son also be manifest in The Daughter if daughters are by definition second best, not as desirable, a disappointment by virtue of their gender?
Sometimes it seems that life is a continual deepening of the heart‘s understanding and healing. I know the essence of the sacred is something below or beyond gender, but it is also something that manifests in infinite ways and many of those ways are gendered, male or female. And surely the sacred is also manifest in our relationships, in the ways we relate to and cherish life in its many forms. There is a great loss if our circle of caring for the world does not encompass all aspects of ourselves, including our gender, the particular form the Mystery takes for a short while through us.
So, unexpectedly last Sunday, a song opened me to holding myself in my own heart as cherished daughter of the divine. Just that phrase- cherished daughter of the divine- makes my breath catch with the miracle of unconscious limitation opening into conscious revelation, the seemingly impossible transformed into a fuller celebration of the joy of being. And I am filled with gratitude for this unexpected healing of an old wound.May we each hold ourselves and each other in our hearts as the cherished sons and daughters of the divine.