Years ago at a retreat center I witnessed a ritual called “slaying in the Spirit” at an African American Pentecostal women’s worship service.
Sociologist Margaret Poloma has defined slaying in the Spirit as “the power of the Holy Spirit so filling a person with a heightened inner awareness that the body’s energy fades away and the person collapses to the floor. “
I was touched and in awe of the women’s prayer community and the compassion and love they showed each other, which enfolded their souls. Watching that service opened a new door for me to behold the power and spiritual depth of women’s worship.
Women’s spirituality in all the major religions is a powerful and beautiful phenomenon.
Most of the major religions have their roots, both in public worship and in religious leadership, in the presiding male presence in leadership roles. Yet, today we see the flowering of women’s identity impacting and contributing to the enrichment of our spirituality in public worship.
Now that women have entered the roles of clergy in many denominations, we see more experimentation and presence by and for women to reach each other and to find their sense of the sacred, even within the same religious teachings of their faith traditions.
Recently on Hilton Head Island, a group of women from several faith traditions — Jewish, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Episcopal — gathered to pray and worship. The ecumenical readings and music reflected their search for and affirmation of their love of God and unity with each other.
They read poems and presented traditional readings. The music was awe-inspiring. Their fellowship with each other affirmed both the legitimacy of their particular religious identities as well as the universal bonds of human beings.
In one passage they read, “Taste and see, taste and see the goodness of the Lord, of the Lord.”
In the poem “The Journey” by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver they read,
“And there was a new voice
Which you slowly
recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper
And deeper into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do
Determined to save
The only life you could save.”
This service showed how women bring a new voice today to public worship and how their voice can impact the course of religion in our society. These women were sharing with each other a message saying that they were moving forward with a vision, not by abandoning the teachings of their respective religions but adapting them to their way of expressing themselves.
Another example was how they put music to the verse in Torah in Numbers 12:13 when Moses calls out to God to heal his sister Miriam who was afflicted with a skin disease. Moses says, “Heal her now, Oh God, I beseech you.”
Women have felt too often that they are observers to a man’s domination of religious practice. My sense was that this statement from Scripture resonated because today’s women need healing and see the importance of addressing the void of not being able to share their voice in public worship. Now they can, and it is a beautiful sight to behold.
In many religious denominations women clergy preach and teach to men and women. Their message is applicable to us all. Spiritual growth helps everyone to dig deeper into the soul without excluding the tradition we all represent. Women are giving us another perspective on how to reach God and to connect with each other as religious communities. The ecumenicism that emerged that day in this special convocation will not be forgotten, and instead builds new bridges between men and women.
One of the final readings came from poet Wendell Berry entitled “The Peace of Wild Things.”
“I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water,
And I feel above me the day-blind starts
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
The Women’s Community Prayer Service for Healing and Thanksgiving on Hilton Head is a great start to a movement to enrich women in search of deeper experiences with prayer and connection to God.
May they continue to find that grace as they step into the light of their newfound voices, which they yearned for, and let their efforts open their hearts and their spirits to the universal God we all worship.