Creating the Word: Themes for a Spirituality of Preaching

Maria Harris

March 17, 1988


She called yesterday, the Shaw Center, with a few little details, and the first thing she asked for was a box.  And I’ve mentioned that to a couple of friends today, and they didn’t understand what that was all about.  But, as another person who when I stand on that side so I don’t show at all, I was real clear that the box was so that we could really be together, and not hung up with this stand here.  It’s a pleasure to introduce Maria Harris.  I’ve heard about her when she was at Andover for years, Andover Newton.  And what I kept hearing was not just words, but a sense of something very special from women who talked about being in her classes.  And so when we had the chance to invite her here with us today, I was thrilled because at last I was going to get my chance to share some time with Maria Harris too.  I must confess that also in getting ready for this event, I recognize again the power of women.  If any of you happen to have noticed the advertisement in Christianity and Prices, you might see that the Anna Howard Shaw Center has managed to do something that even the Pope has managed to do yet.  We ordained Maria Harris (laughter and applause.)  Of course for those of us who know that ministry doesn’t have too much to do with those special ordination processes, we already knew that we were going to be ministered to by Maria’s presence.  Maria is a visiting professor of Religious Education at Fordham in the fall of each year, and she’s at New York University throughout the year.  Her most recent book, which I believe is still upstairs, is Teaching and Religious Imagination.  I know that book is there.  She’s also written, Women and Teaching.  We are delighted to have Maria.  She’s going to have some conversation, then we will divide in small groups, and she will answer questions.  It’s a pleasure to have you.


Maria Harris

Maria Harris

This is what Margaret and I are like when we don’t stand on anything (laughter.)  This is what  we’re like when we have a box.  So thank you for the box.  Thank you for the ordination.  Thank  you for your presence.  Thank you for the invitation to be here.

 A Feel for the Group

How many people, it would be very helpful to me to get a sense of the group, are ordained- really ordained, not fake ordained- how many ordained…?  Thank you.  Studying preparatory to ordination if somebody will take you?  Thank you.  Denominational Execs?  We got anybody like that? Good.  Good.  Two. Who am I leaving out?  The priesthood, the common priesthood of all believers, those who are not ordained?  I do this now, sometimes yes, sometimes no.  How many people are working in local church settings? That’s very few then who are not.  What else then is represented besides local church settings?  Just call it out.  Hospital ministry, pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, university chaplaincy.  Who are the university chaplains?  I know one, two, three.  I consider myself a loafer.  I work half a year, and then I plant the garden or cook, sit still the second half of the year.

But today, I’m not loafing.  What I would hope to do today is this: I’m going to speak for about an hour.  And I’m going to try to address the topic: Creating the Word.  Subtitle, Themes for a Spirituality of Preaching.  After that, after about 50 minutes or an hour, I will ask you to take some time for a conversation with one another, particularly around responses, comments, interpretations, applications that you are making, I’m going to assume that as I’m speaking, you will be responding, making applications and interpretations.  And then we’ll spend the last half hour or so talking back and forth, both this way as well as this way with one another.  So sit back, and let me try to address to you in the first part of our time together:

Creating the Word: Themes for a Spirituality of Preaching

I spent most of yesterday at a shelter for women in Brooklyn, New York.  I was tremendously impressed by the work of the women who are running the center, the women who are from all walks of life: a couple of nuns, a couple of ex-offenders. Tremendously impressed and inspired by those women, and as always, shocked and disturbed by the suffering of the women who are staying at the shelter, and by what they have endured.  And last night, talking with my husband, I said, “I find myself, in preparing for tomorrow, and reflecting on what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, making comparisons between the work of using words and really important work they are doing at the shelter.”  And that was private until about an hour and a half ago, and I thought, ‘I would suspect that that experience I had yesterday, and then getting ready to speak today, is one that most of you have also met.’  Where we are most of us, people who work if not exclusively with words, people whose major tool or major form of interaction is speaking.  And I think it important the way I settled it temporarily for myself, was in recalling Judy Collins’ great song, which in turn refers to that great strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, ‘hearts starve as well as bodies.  Bread, which we need to give to one another, real bread, and roses.’  All of which is to say, I hope this will be food for your spirits and for your hearts.  Creating the Word: Themes for a Spirituality of Preaching.

The two key words: word and creating.

Martin Buber says that there are three ways to be present in a situation.

1. You walk into a situation, and the first way to be present is you bring a list, or you bring a notebook, and you write down whatever happens, you look for it, and you go home with a pack of notes.  Buber calls that the way of observation.

2. The second way, you trust your mind and your heart to pick up whatever is going on in the situation.  You don’t write anything down.  You trust that you’ll be able to take in whatever you need to take in.  And that second way is the way of Onlooker.

3. But the third way is entirely different from those two.  Because when you’re the observer or an onlooker, you’re the agent, you and I are in charge.  We go in, and we take in whatever we feel is important to take in from the situation.  The third way, we walk into a setting and we find that something addresses us.  Something says something to us.  And we have to do with it.  We may have to sell all our goods and give it to the poor, we may know that there’s a decision down the pike, the pike in 5 years.  But whatever, in this third kind of situation or setting, a word demanding an answer happens to us.  A word demanding an answer inflicts destiny on us.

And in speaking this afternoon about creating the word, the kind of word I want to draw our attention to is that word which demands an answer. The kind of word which inflicts destiny.  At the very top level, here, the words that come out of our mouths when we teach or preach, when we are speaking or taking the role of speaker.  Underneath that level, what really helps to create the spoken word, the words we are. Ourselves, and other selves as words demanding an answer.  Underneath ourselves as words, there’s even a third meaning of word, and that is world, universe, all of created beings, which we are continuing to create or deny the creation of.  And that world in which we create, that’s the undergirding for the words we are, which is the undergirding for the words we speak.  And then, at the very deepest level but also permeating all the other words, the one who, as in the story of Lilith, keeps saying, ‘I am who I am, but I must become who I must become.’  The word who, I would take the last position is also in some way ours to create.  Its word and all those meanings I speak to this afternoon.

The other word in the title is creating.  I would recall to you (that’s good, because this is my good side.  The photographer’s down here –laughter.) I’d recall to you that in the Hebrew Bible especially there are two images of creating.  The first image of creating is of the potter or the carpenter, but of making something particularly with the work of our hands, making something, shaping it, and having it exist out there in front of us. Creating as making, which shows up, if you think about these phrases for a while, this first image of creating, in such phrases as ‘making a living,’ is that what we do to living? Or ‘making meaning,’ as if it’s our making that creates meaning.  Or, a very interesting phrase, ‘making love.’  So there’s that first image of creating of something outside us.  However, suffusing the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is a second image of creating where the Creator, divine and human, is a brooding, hovering, involved presence never separate from that which is being created.  Creating in this second imagery of creating you find in Julian of Norwich, Blessed Julian of Norwich who talks about the Spirit enclosed in her and herself enclosed in the Spirit.  And the closest analogy to this second image of creating is of course, as you’re aware, birth.  It’s the second image of creating I want to explore with you this afternoon, that brooding, hovering, always involved in what is being created, never being able to separate from.  I’d also say- would you believe this is all by way of introduction?- I’d also say with reference to creating that there are a few laws which always accompany creating, a few rules.

One law is you never create alone.  Let me just throw that into the atmosphere.

A second law I got from J.D. Salinger, where Seymour, the 9-year-old Seymour, who is arguably the greatest marble player in all of Brooklyn is giving instructions to his little brother, his little 6-year-old brother Zooey about how to play marbles.  And it’s a great law of creativity.  Seymour looks at Zooey and watches what he’s doing, and finally he says to the boy, ‘Could you try not aiming so much?’  Creating: key rule, don’t aim. 

And the third rule I’ll offer up to you is as we create, we engage in steps in a process.  The notion of steps is all over contemporary literature, particularly psychological literature. But the steps we get in much contemporary literature, the notion that we have in contemporary literature is the steps on a ladder, or steps on a staircase.  Piaget, Kohlberg, Fowler-steps.  The notion I want to offer to you today is another set of steps, but this time, steps as in a dance.  Rosemary Reuther reminds us that ‘when you take steps, movement is never up, the movement always is toward the center.’  And when you think of yourself as involved in steps in a dance when you are creating the word, then that understanding of steps is one where you can move forward, backward, sometimes be partnered with 10 or 20 partners, sometimes be solitary, where at whatever step you find yourself, you are where you are supposed to be.  And where the steps in the activity of creating, as in that second image, lead naturally to the next step, and where the cycle is, it isn’t only this way, it is sometimes this way and this way, as we are when we are free and liberated to dance and when we stop aiming.  But the most important aspect in the steps of creating the word is that each of them is drawn from the lives and experiences of women.  Each of them is part of the geography of women’s spirit.  Together they can serve as the basis for women serving the word, and the world, and eventually I would argue transform all preaching.

There are five steps.


The first of them is silence.  The activity of creating begins with the step of silence.  [Can you hear me?  I know there’s some problem with the sound, it’s reverberating. Anybody want to change their seat?  I’ll go near.  Is that any better? Well, let’s see…Feel free to change your place.  Do whatever you have to, or start talking to the person next to you (laughter.) That’s allowed too.]

Anyway, first step, silence.  It would be difficult to find a more pervasive theme in contemporary study of women, especially women studying women than silence.  Some examples.  Tillie Olsen, Silences.  Adrienne Rich, Of Lies, Secrets, and Silences.  Rita Gross and Nancy Faulk, writing about the religious lives of women in Africa and Asia, Unspoken Worlds.  Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice.  Jane Rolland Martin, perhaps the most powerful work on contemporary education and women, Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation.  Most recent book, earlier this year on women’s poetry, Stealing the Language.  And of course, the great council of Marge Piercy, her work is Unlearning to Not Speak.

But perhaps the most striking example of this exploration of silence and of voice, which pervades the literature and conversation women have with one another is in the 1986 study, Women’s Ways of Knowing.  How many people are familiar with that?  Check it out in the bookstore.  In that research into the educational lives of over 100 women, the four authors, the four women who co-wrote the book relate an insight similar to this starting point of silence, and then they go on to comment, and I’m quoting them, “When we interviewed the women, what we had not anticipated was that voice was more than an academic shorthand for a person’s point of view.  Well after we were into our interviews with women, we became aware that voice is a metaphor that can be applied to many aspects of women’s experience.  In describing their lives, women commonly talked about voice and silence.”  And then they start listing the ways women talked about their lives.  What they had are, “speaking up, speaking out, being silent, not being heard, really listening, feeling deaf and dumb, having no words, an endless variety of comments,” and these are women who had not read the research.  In trying to speak about their lives, just think about the implications for preaching, women go back to or go down into the imagery and the metaphor of silence.  And in Women’s Ways of Knowing, the authors say, “when we asked ‘what are the metaphors she’s using to depict her experience of growing and changing,’ the metaphor reverberating,” that’s their word, “the metaphor reverberating in the accounts of women, is the metaphor of gaining a voice.”  Silence.  Gaining a voice.  Not having a voice.  Dominance as a starting point for creating. The absence of women’s voices in all fields.  Adrienne Rich wrote, oh maybe 15 years ago, “taking women students seriously,” and you may remember that Adrienne Rich described the faces of women students in her classes then 15 years ago, and she said, “look at the faces of the silence and of those who speak.  Listen to a woman groping for language in which to express what is on her mind, sensing that the terms of academic discourse,” and I would add theological discourse, “are not her language.  Trying to cut down her thought to the dimensions of a conversation not intended for her or,” and how many of us would relate to this, “or reading her paper out loud at break-neck speed, throwing her words away, putting herself down with a kind of reflex prejudgment, ‘I don’t deserve to take up time and space.’”  I have to say as one who lived in Boston for more than a decade, this tends not to describe women this side of the Charles River, as much as it does women throughout the country.  Those who would say, ‘oh that was 15 years ago, things have changed,’ I have to tell you just even going south to that center of the universe we call New York, the silence of women is still very, very much with us, west of the Charles and west of the Hudson.  And you who are spending your time in the local church I’m sure can corroborate that.

Well, there are many responses to the silence.

The first one, and appropriate, is sorrow, and a kind of sense of loss.

A friend of mine who works with teenage young women wrote to me not too long ago and she said, “Maria, I’ve spent the last year speaking and preaching to teenagers and using people from the Scriptures as real people they can grab hold of and embrace.  Every time I bring up Miriam,” and she hadn’t read Phyllis Trible yet, “but every time I bring up Miriam,” she says, “they have no clue to who she is.  Yes is,” Rosie went on in her letter, “yes, is, not was, Miriam holds great lessons for us.  What does it mean to hold life as sacred?  What does it mean to use creative problem solving to deal with the impossible?  What does it mean to look for what you have in common with your greatest enemy?  Lessons as great as the one’s of her brother.”  And then she finishes, and she says, “Miriam is part of my flood, my life.  As alive to me as she was for Moses, I heard about Moses when I was five.  I found Miriam when I was 30.”  And what she’s expressing is sorrow, loss because of the silence.


Another kind of response is awakening,

and no on articulates awakening to silence, I think, as powerfully as Margaret Atwood does in her novel Surfacing, where one of her characters coming aware and awakening to the silence in her life says, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that, I can do nothing.  The word games, the winning and losing games are over.  And at the moment there are no others, but they will have to be invented.  Withdrawing is no longer possible.  And the alternative is death.  Awakening and saying, I’m not going to put up with this anymore.”  But in all the responses to silence, awakening, sorrow, pain, awareness, as important as any of those is the step of silence where we use silence itself, not as a negative force, but as a positive one, and as a healing power.  Silence is multi-faceted and multi-layered.  And in some instances, although silence is a demon to be exorcised, we also come to realize that silence, notably that contemplative silence is a companion to be befriended.  What I’m talking about is the silence of listening to ourselves, to what we are really saying, to one another and to our world.

Receptive contemplative listening, that silence can be a power, healing the wounds that the other silences inflict.  As you know I’m sure, silence can lead us to the discovery of the divinity within ourselves where we say, ‘I found God within myself, and learned to love Her, learned to love Her fiercely.’  We won’t find God within ourselves, I don’t think, and learn to love Her and love Her fiercely, unless we take on- Maria, do you know what I have to do in my local church?  Yes I do.  Unless we take on the time and the texture of contemplative silence, and learn to use Her wisdom and Her truth, and Her power as we create the world, and as we create the word.  It is the power of silence as the Shekhinah, the hovering, rooting presence we can hear as well as feel, that contemplative silence brings us.  And in Her company, we can begin to hear all of the silent, muted voices, which are speaking, but speaking often so quietly we don’t hear, and move from the step of silence into the second step of the dance, and that step I would call Remembering.


The turn from silence, and think of the turn as something you do in bodily ways. The turn from silence to remembering is a natural one.  Because out of the awareness and the listening provoked by silence, and sometimes out of the loss and alienation provoked by a tradition which often excludes women previously, unheard voices start to make their claim.  And the voices sometimes are those of people whose names we simply did not know, sometimes are voices of people we knew were there, but did not have the time to meet and to listen to, sometimes they’re the voices of the unheard divinity.  So this remembering is a listening to voices.  But in the work of creating the word, especially in preaching, remembering also pushes us to get involved in several processes, which are processes of remembering, which we can incorporate into our preaching.  The two forms I draw your attention to are dangerous remembering, and liturgical remembering.  It’s John Baptiste Smith, who’s given us the theme of dangerous remembering.

There are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.  You know you’re in the presence of a dangerous memory when you say, ‘I don’t want to look at that.  That’s enough.’  Dangerous memories, they illuminate for a few minutes and with a harsh steady light, the nature of things we’ve apparently come to terms with.  They show us the banality of our supposed realism.  They break through the cannon of the prevailing structures of plausibility, dangerous memories.  And they have certain subversive features.  Metz says, “Such memories are like dangerous visitations from the past that we have to take into account.”  And there are two kinds of dangerous memories, more dangerous than any other- memories of suffering and memories of freedom.  And the work of creating the word is a re-membering the memories of suffering and the memories of freedom.  The memories of suffering certainly are those of the suffering of women throughout the world.  Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin have detailed these for us at length- The Chinese foot-binding, and African genital mutilation, and U.S. removal of wombs and breasts and European witch burning- the history of women, the suffering simply because we were women.  But also, the present suffering.  Anne Sexton says in one of her poems, “I cannot walk an inch, without trying to walk to God.”  I’m always struck by that when I go out in the street in New York City.  I cannot walk an inch without meeting someone who is homeless.  Memories of suffering are as recent as this morning and last night for most of us.  And these are dangerous memories because they push us to look at what we have apparently taken for granted.

I’d like to play the notion, perhaps we can talk about it later, that one of the reasons there has been a failure in remembering dangerous memories of suffering is the neglect of the image of the Christa. There’s an evasion, a resistance to the image to remember, that image of crucified woman, called the Christa.  We’ve enumerable representations of the male crucified figure, and I do not mean to move that to the side, but the representation of the suffering woman.  Edwina Sandys sculpture that came to the Christacountry 2 or 3 years ago starting in Berkley, of the crucified female figure, or the crucified female figure who I’m sure most of us remember.  Is there one of us really, who does not recall the figure of the naked and screaming Vietnamese child  Kim, her back ablaze with Napalm, a picture that more than anything else made us confront the suffering of the Vietnam war.  That was an image of the Christa. That is what I am trying to speak of.  And the failure to remember the Christa in all of her forms may be one of the reasons why we do not emphasize dangerous remembering as much as we might.  Memories of suffering.  But dangerous memories and dangerous remembering is also memories of freedom.  My own great heroine, Molly Rush, Molly Rush, the director of the Thomas Merton Peace Center in Pittsburgh, the Brothers Baragan, – do you know that name, Baragan?- would call Molly Rush regularly, and say, “Molly, we’re demonstrating in front of the Pentagon, would you come and join us?”  She, mother of six, and grandmother of two, would respond, “I can’t.  What about the children?”    And they’d call the next month and say, “We have another demonstration, we need you.”  And she’d respond almost a mantra, “What about the children?”  And eventually, she started to hear her own words, not so much in relation to her children at home, but to the children of the world and of the relation of their lives to nuclear arsenals.  Or same mantra, “What about the children,” the mothers and the grandmothers of the desaparacitos, walking around in a circle when nobody would confront the Argentine military, walking with the pictures of their children, saying nothing.  But in their walking and in the holding of their pictures saying, “What about the children?”  Or Jean Donovan, if those of you who are using Women Guide, Rosemary Reuther’s Women Guide, a set of wonderful possibilities for worship have probably come across a letter home from Jean Donovan, one of four churchwomen killed in El Salvador in ’80.  And she wrote, “The Peace Corp left today.  And I don’t blame them.  It is right to go.  But I look out the window, and I look at the children, these bruised innocent victims of what is happening, and I can’t get myself to leave.”  “What about the children?”  These are women who asked in their own persons the questions of dangerous remembering.

But the other form of remembering is liturgical remembering.  You must have had a worship class at some time or another where you were thrown the great big word, which is a somewhat poetic word, anamnesis. Anamnesis, the kind of remembering we do in worship.  The kind of remembering where through liturgy and through worship, we bring a past event through ceremonial representation into the present.  At the core of liturgical remembering is the human capacity to take hold of an event or a person and bring it into the present, and in doing that allow the event or the person take hold of ourselves.  Liturgical remembering, and doing anamnesis demands the creation of ceremonies based on the kinds of remembering I have been speaking of.  There are innumerous possibilities, our workshops I think will deal with them.  Two of which I will call to your mind.  Two forms taking liturgical remembering seriously.  The first occurred for me, here at BU.  A number of us, students and faculty, had met together to pray and to have supper.  And after we had shared a meal, we moved into the prayer by each one being asked to complete on a piece of paper the sentence ‘I am in the Church because…’  Then we folded them up and put them in the center of the room, and lit candles, and someone else took the paper and read it.  Nine people gave comments that you might not find unfamiliar.  “I am in the Church because there’s no where else to go.”  But the tenth was the one which was a dangerous remembering, because the tenth person wrote, “I am not in the Church because…”  And it was a memory of her exercising her freedom, that then became part of all of us present, who perhaps truthfully are in the Church, and at the same time are not.  Anamnesis.  The other liturgical remembering I took part in for the first time over at EDS, and subsequently took part in almost the same form of liturgical remembering in Melbourne, Australia.  We used Judy Chicago’s dinner party.  Where all the women present designed a place mark, remembering forgotten women.  And I have as I assume many of you have, by using the dinner party as a form, toasted the memories and the lives of Mary- Jesus’ mother Mary, that Mary- Madea, Anne Frank, Lilith, and in doing so, I like the other women whose company I shared ceremoniously, liturgically remembered the past, and a past which not until then had been fully mine.  Those moments however of remembering were not without pain and not without tears.  For in genuine remembering of suffering and freedom, there is loss, there is grieving, there is sorrow, there is anger, and often there is rage.  And the steps in the dance now pause as the memories of the loss is faced, and the next step is entered- from silence to remembering and having remembered, we realize we have to commit ourselves an even deeper ritual, and so we come to the third step, the step of mourning.


Mourning. It often strikes me, and I’ve often said that one of the dynamics in the step of remembering is the inner urge we feel toward movement, I’m going to design some rituals.  There’s an inner urge to do something, but mourning is along the lines of not ‘it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness,’ but along the lines of ‘let’s curse the darkness for a while.’  Don’t just do something, stand there.  Mourning is the antidote to every preacher, pastor, teacher’s occupational temptation, and that is to say, ‘courage God, I come.’  Mourning.  Standing. Creating the word.  The step of mourning is the step where we take time to grieve.  To grieve.  The remembering pushes us to a grieving over what has been lost.  And what is grieving?  In 1942 here in Boston, a tragic fire struck the Coconut Grove Nightclub.  It’s in the local lore.  How many of you have ever heard of that Coconut?  Yes, it’s in the local lore.  And at the time, Eric Lindeman did the first study of what happens when someone is engaged in bereavement and grieving.  And in interviewing survivors of the fire as well as those closest to them, Eric Lindeman found there were 6 characteristics especially evident in mourning.  Somatic, bodily distress, pains in the stomach.  Intense preoccupation with the image of what’s been lost.  Guilt, it’s part of mourning.  Guilt.  Four, a disconcerting lack of warmth.  Disorganized patterns of conduct, and finally, the feeling you no longer fit.  The feeling you no longer fit. I think there’s a remarkable degree of correspondence in the presence of those characteristics and those who are mourning actual death, as well as in the lives of persons, notably women, moving into a role and into work which was not designed for us.  Guilt, preoccupation with the image of what was lost.  The feeling you no longer fit.  Disorganized patterns of conduct.  Elisabeth Kubler Ross, as you know, picked up on that research and named steps or stages in dying.  Denial, anger, rage, bargaining, acceptance, depression.  I think that the anger is particularly appropriate for women to look at.  Anger as part of mourning, not as the end, but as something to move through.  Chrysostom, John Chrysostom of all people says, “Whoever is without anger, when there is cause for anger, sins.”  Next time somebody says, ‘you shouldn’t get mad!’ ah ha!  But even better than John Chrysostom, Beverly Harrison.  Beverly Harrison saying to us, with reference to anger, which is part of mourning, it is better understood as

a feeling signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups, or to the world around us.  Anger is a mode of connectedness to others, and it’s always a vivid mode of caring.  To put the point another way, anger always is a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations around us. 

And what is this to do with creating the word?  You cannot, you cannot move on to the more positive work of actually engaging in the creative process until you have moved through.  The way out is through.  But more important, the work of mourning, which includes anger, is a testimony to those who have gone before.  You can’t just be angry.  You can’t just rage.  You can’t just mourn.  The point of mourning is its particular pertinence in developing a spirituality of preaching, in that mourning signals a movement toward justice.  If there’s any answer to, at the heart of the question, why mourning, it is not only that it comes out of remembering suffering and freedom, it is that mourning in fact, and the answer to the question, why mourn, the answer is this- the failure to pause, to acknowledge, and to name is a desecration, a de-sacrilization of memory.  The hurry to do our own work without pausing to notice the holiness of unnumbered women dead, who go crying through our singing, and our preaching, their ancient call for bread.  The failure to do that is to violate them.  The absence of care toward those who are sedimented in our flesh and blood, living on in us, is to invite death of the spirit.  And so we name in our preaching, in our creating the word, our mothers, our grandmothers, our foremothers.  We name our sisters, our daughters, our lovers, and our friends.  We name women of ideas and women of slavery.  We name bruised women, broken women, battered women.  We name brilliant women, artistic women.  We name women become numbers in the ovens of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, and women become castaways on the streets of Boston, and we hold our own dinner party, and that moves us to doing the work of justice.

And when we do that work, that mourning and naming, that work we discover, is not the serious solemn work it looked like in the beginning.  It is neither sad, nor terrifying.  Indeed, as we name in song and silence, and in mourning, it pushes us into laughter, and often into dance.  Everyone in this room I am sure, has been in the situation because things are so bad, there is nothing else to do but laugh.  So mourning need not be a getting stuck.  It is liberation into laughter and into dance.  If you’ve ever been at an Irish Wake, I should name an Irish wake today, but so do all persons come together to acknowledge life, and accept its passing.  The grieving is real, the pain is real, the loss is real, but the power of mourning lies in its capacity to name the pain, to free us from it, to exorcise that demon, and to grant the pain burial.  And when we do that, mourning prepares the way for imagination and creative power to appear on the stage, and mourning moves us into the fourth step in the dance, and that step is artistry.


Creating the word moves me from silence, to remembering, to mourning, to artistry.  In artistry, we turn to the work of shaping those forms demanded in creating a new word, a new world, including creating the words we are.  We could choose to work as technicians, as scientists, or as politicians or theologians, and as preachers, we have to work those ways very very often.  But if we are about the work of creating, a far richer starting point in my view, is to understand ourselves as taking on the activities of reshaping, redesigning, and reforming that which has been given into our hands, especially in the forms of preaching and of worship.  “We are often blocked in artistry,” says Ben Shahn, the great graphic artist, “by a fear of our own creativity.”  We’re blocked in artistry by not realizing what it is to be an artist, and we’re also blocked by being dilettantes, engaging in non-serious dabbling in serious business.  But the work of artistry, as a step in the dance of creating the word, is a work of reshaping, to begin with reshaping symbolism, and we do that simply in our bodies as women.  We don’t look like preachers.  Preachers are people, well, they’re another sex, they wear long robes, and they talk in a deeper voice.  We reshape symbolism simply by doing the work.  And people may resist it, but we’re reshaping, we’re engaged in artistry whenever we stand, or sit, to preach.  Another reshaping of symbolism I’ve seen it work to some extent at the Chapel at Union Seminary in New York, is a reshaping of the settings where preaching goes on.  I did ask that we meet in some place other than this, I want to tell you that.  Because the form, the symbolism, not of Marsh Chapel, it’s a wonderful chapel, and BU’s a wonderful university, yes.  But the symbolism of what it is to create the word together is deeply undercut it seems to me by the form of the architecture, the geography of those places where we speak.  In addition to reshaping symbolism, artistry means reshaping rituals. It’s Anne Johnson who’s out in Ethel these days, Anne Johnson who says, “You know in our rituals, we use blessings all the time, but most of the blessings we use are blessings such as, may the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, and may the Lord give you peace.”  Anne says, “why don’t we now and then reshape rituals so that we now and then say to one another, the Lord plague you and torment you.  The Lord set an impossible task before you.  The Lord give you strength to do your best and not to falter.  Then and only then, may the Lord grant you peace.”

Reshaping ritual, reshaping language.

Draw on the poets.  Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest counsels I know of to give to preachers, Emily Dickinson who said, “tell the truth, but tell its slant.”  Reshaping language.  Read Annie Dillard, read the comic strips, read Annie Dillard.  I know that it’s important in the tradition to speak of the Church as Kingdom for some, Reign for others, Bethelea for others, household for others, but here’s Annie Dillard, and I think it’s a great image of what it is to be Church.  Annie Dillard says,

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.  I am aging and eaten, and have done my share of eating too.  I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits.  But instead, am wandering odd on a splintered wreck I have come to care for, whose trees breath a delicate air.”

Well, maybe we could use language and call the church “a splintered wreck we’ve come to care for.”  And in reshaping language, get past the face of language into the depths of its heart.  Reshape symbolism, reshape ritual, reshape language, and reshape knowledge.  And the artistry of reshaping knowledge is found in asking questions.  Elizabeth has been so helpful to us in her articulating of a hermeneutic of suspicion.  Ask questions.  Accept no dogma without investigation.  It might be wrong; accept no dogma without investigation, it might be right.  But whatever you do with dogma, ask questions.  Gerda Lerner in Teaching Women’s History, is a big help to women who teach religion and theology and to preach it.  Gerda Lerner gives a set of questions that are very helpful in reshaping knowledge.

She says, “Whatever you prepare, ask the questions: Where and who are the missing women in this story?”  She says ask, “What women do, while the men were doing what the book tells us was important?”  “What did women do, while the men were doing what the book tells us was important?”  She says ask, “How did women define the issue?

And to be alert to asking those questions which makes us very popular.  To be alert to asking those questions is to do the work of artistry, because it is questions such as those, which reshape knowledge.  And when we reshape knowledge, and language, and ritual, and symbol, we are doing the work of artistry, because the work of artistry is offering form to people. (You’re saying to yourself ‘when is she going to finish?’  I have one more step, I will finish.  But let me say about what I am trying to do here this afternoon.)  What I am trying to do in naming the steps in creating the world, is to offer a form, the form of a dance, but also the elements that are part of that dance, that can serve as criteria for all our work.  The great work it seems to me, of preaching and the ministry of the word, is not delivering content to the people, it is delivering people to themselves.  And you can’t do that directly with content, but you can do that when your work is artistry, and you are offering people forms.  It is in receiving forms, and then doing the work of re-creation and artistry that we are delivered to ourselves.  And when we are delivered to ourselves, and we realize we have come to the fifth step, appropriate, since it is a delivery, is birthing.


In Spiritual Midwifery, Ina Gaskin says, “When a child is born, the entire universe has to shift and make room.  Another entity capable of free will, and therefore capable of becoming God, has been born.  In that way, every birth is exactly like the birth of a world teacher. Every child born is a living Buddha.”  Birthing, bring as well as we can, bringing the forms that enable people to be delivered to themselves and the world to be delivered to itself.  Because in the step of birthing, it is not so much the preacher’s work that is the creating, once birthing occurs, the movement has been turned over to the other, and the other is now taking on responsibility for his or her life, and the community is taking responsibility for its life.  Birthing: the step in the dance where we say ‘I really can’t do anymore except hang around, and help out where I’m needed.’  Birthing, which teaches us that things take time.  Human birth- nine months.  Birthing, which teaches us that darkness is an environmental life.  And even will all our sophisticated knowledge, the daily moving into life of the organism, takes place in a healing, living, illuminating darkness. All good preaching conveys this.  Katheryn Shifel (?) taught me years ago that one of the people who does it best is in the play “The Corn is Green.” That wonderful old teacher L.C. Moffatt, whose young mining student tells her that underneath the ground he is able, even when he cannot see, to reach his hand up and feel where the corn is green.  And I remember Katheryn saying, ‘that’s what preaching is, and that’s what teaching is.  It is a feeling where the corn is green and enabling and empowering others to feel their life is starting and where the corn is green.’  Birthing, where what we take on is the work of the midwife. Phyllis Trible has been so helpful in reminding us of Shiprah and Puah, those of us who may have forgotten them.  But it may be important, and in this place I think particularly important, to name one of the great midwife teachers, and one of the great midwife preachers of our century, who took all of these themes and spoke of them with an eloquence none of us can match until perhaps we get to be her age and die as she did last July, midway through her eighties.  Yes, I speak of Nell Morton.  Nell Morton, having this to say of birthing,

“Once we took the painful journey through the core of our lives, we found we were sustained, in the awful loneliness we were not alone.  Something shaped our cry, brought forth our speech, fragmentary as it was.  We had been told all our lives that the word ‘created,’ that the word came first, even in the beginning before the beginning.”

Now we know that Nell, a priority to the word, a hearing that brought forth the word.  She too began with silence.  She said, “We literally heard one another downpour words that was our word and the word was ourselves.  We went down, then up from under.  We have experienced birth.  Not rebirth, not new birth, or rite of passage, or entry, but birth of ourselves for the first time.  We have been heard into speech by a great ear listening to us from the heart of the universe.”

Birthing.  Midwife.  Midwifing the word.  And what is it toward?  What it is toward is silence.  Birthing is the culmination of the Dance, but you know that as in any dance, you can stop the dance at any time because you need to be still.  And then you can pick it up again.  And in the creating of the word when we come to birthing, we have delivered- let us hope- others to themselves, and it is time for us to simply sit back and let that which has been born take on its own life, knowing that tomorrow the dance will start again.  Tomorrow, other voices will need to be remembered.  Tomorrow, we will have to mourn for ones lost.

But for today, we can dance.

Let me stop there. (APPLAUSE.)

MARIA HARRIS: I would ask you here, to dance with one another.  And for the next 20 minutes, to take time if you haven’t to introduce yourselves to one another. Perhaps to remember that the mind can absorb as much as the seat can, and so you may want to move a bit, around the pew, and through the pew, and over the pew.  But for the next 20 minutes, I ask you to turn to those who are near you, and to name for one another that which has touched you in what you have heard.  And where you are impelled to ask questions of whatever word it is demanding an answer from you, as well as from me.  So I ask you to talk with one another-

What has touched you, and what are the words you would name as demanding an answer from you at this time?

And then we’ll spend the last 20 minutes in a conversation to which all of us can join.  The form or format questions and answers doesn’t really say things as well as some other form do.  I think the question I’d like to begin with, the comment I’d like to begin with, is whether you’d say something for all of us of what’s been going on in your discussion.  Would you say something about what’s been going on, if anything, in your conversation for all of us.  And I have been asked to repeat whatever is said if I can, and if I can’t, I’m not gonna.  So there.  (These conversations are non-descript, but Ms. Harris responds.)

She’s very good isn’t she. (laughter.)  Thank you, Thank you.

Responses to questions from the audience (which are not heard on the tape.)

Response 1: An Environment for life?  Yes, I said both things, but I said the second in another form.  The comment, the question is about birthing, the metaphor about birthing, and my talking about darkness as an environment for life.  And it is an environment where life develops.  But I also made the point where it is illuminating for darkness, which is paradoxical.  And I think that is important.  But I want to way one other thing about birthing, which your comments provoke.  I use the metaphor or image of birth, which I would contrast with birthing, in class, oh, sometimes 1983 or 4, one of the responses, which made me think, really provoked me to say ‘what do I mean by all this,’ was “Maria, when you offering birthing, or birth as a metaphor, you are suggesting that women tie themselves down to something that many women want to be untied from.  Women, we ought to stop encouraging women to give birth.”  And as I said, I think that was a very provocative comment.  I’d really be interested in what you think about that.  But at any rate, I just want to add that caveat that birth or birthing can be experienced or can be heard as burden, and certainly experienced as still-birth.  Anyway, play with it, and take it.

Response 2: Other comments, responses? Yes? Thank you.  The comment is about the congregation feeling burdened by what the preacher has said, and the necessity for, correct me if I’m miss hearing you, the necessity for the congregation to be partners, companions with the preacher.  It seems to me, the shape of worship, and I mean the shape, this, is critical for whether there’s going to be distance and separation or coming together as community.  I find us here, I certainly experience myself as trying to overcome great hindrance  on the part of the geography.  We just wouldn’t have the same congregation if we were on the same level etc.  So the burden is on you today to be hearers, and into a kind of passivity that I’m naming, because I think when you name things you help overcome them, or you move to overcoming them.  You dissipate them.  But I think that burden you named is increased by what we school teachers call the implicit curriculum, by the design and the shape of the place where you come together, and the centuries of someone being up high speaking down to- the imagery there is incredible.  You want to respond to that?  Yes. Come.

Response 3: Time to worship, and time to preach.  I think another false understanding we can convey that it is one hour or a week, if that, or two hours a week.  The reason I was trying to push the contemplative side of silence was, I used to say at Andover Newton, Sabbath, Sabbath, take small Sabbath’s in every day.  I just love, don’t you all love, sometimes I just sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.  But if you grow up in good old Puritan New England, ‘An Idle Mind is the Devil’s Workshop.’  Bologna!  It is when we sit, not even think.  So your point about time is just as critical as place.  Thank you for that.  Yes?

Response 4: Thank you for that, I think you’re right that the burden is in the role.  But I would take the position, which for .60 cents gets you on the Boston Subway, I would take the position, this form was not designed for women.  It is not a woman’s form.  We don’t speak….Our bodies are round to begin with.  There’s a roundedness in femaleness.  Let me put it this way- if you could design a setting for the preaching of the word, and there was not previous setting, would you design a setting like this?  Pour Old Marsh Chapel is getting the brunt of this, and this is probably a good place.  But if a community is not only breaking bread, but breaking the word together, you do break the word in ways you break the bread.  Now that’s a position, and it’s certainly arguable.  Yeah- and washed feet.  The woman said ‘Jesus sat down.’ But then it doesn’t get caught on the tape if you sit down.  It’s like the camera- The Alps exists on the camera, and what you remember is the picture and not the Alps, well…Yes?

Response 5: You’re welcome.  Let me say something about the blessing, which could be understood as a mantra for the week.  In the tradition I come from we finally gave up Latin about twenty years ago.  But the mass, the Catholic mass, while it was celebrated in Latin always ended with the phrase ‘ite, missa est’  Which was translated in our mass books, our Missals, Go (ite) the mass is ended (missa est)– the mass is completed.  An alternative translation of that, which is simply thought of as a null curriculum is ‘ite, missa est,’ Go, now is the mass.  Now is the worship.  Now is the celebration.  And I thank you, because I didn’t even hear what you heard in the blessing, that the blessing is ‘here’s your mantra to repeat for the week folks.  Take this with you when you have those small Sabbaths of everyday.’  Yes?

Response 6: I don’t know (laughter.)  I do think in naming the issue.  Naming something is so critical.  I don’t think women don’t want to take authority though.  I think we experience it very often as risky and troublesome.  And I think the woman behind you points out rightly it’s a burden, an ‘oh, gosh do I want to do this?’  But the kind of grief that most of the women here know.  That’s masochistic if you subject yourself to that because you don’t want to take on authority.  So in doing what you’re doing with your life, you’ve said yes to authority.  But somewhere deep in our lives, the authority, the office, the pastoral office is not designed for us.  It’s like, I used to get into a size 4, and it just doesn’t fit.  A size 16 doesn’t either.  It’s just not this shape.  And that’s where the difficulty is.  It’s a very painful thing.  And this isn’t just the Church.  There are very few institutions in our world that are designed from women’s perspective.  I suspect one of them is nursing.  The activity of nursing.  It’s very painful.  Even birthing itself, we’re finally getting back to the point where the woman is taken into account.  But as you know, birth was designed to be so kind, to the benefit of the physician.  Only in American, yeah, thank you for that.  Others?  Yes?

Response 7: Oh, Bravo, Bravo.  Oh, I want to get that on the tape if I can.  The, ‘tell the truth, but tell it’s plan’ is complemented by our natural capacity if I’m hearing you, to hear the truth plan, illuminating darkness, but also a mantra for the weak, W-E-A-K, as well as W-E-E-K.  You should write, you know, you’re very good.  Yes?

Response 8: How do we bring about a balance between the mis-fitting of the profession for women and as women, the not quite fitting, and the unction of the call?  The thing that comes into my own mind is I consider it a blessing that we don’t fit.  Following ‘to tell the truth, but to tell it’s plan,’ Kathryn Shifel- do any of you know Katheryn?  One of my great mentors.  Kathryn Shifel used to say to me, “we have to be ware of the tyranny of the inner circle.  And when you don’t fit, it can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. There’s something about not quite fitting that goes with the depth of humanity.”  I think Camus, Albert Camus was right.  We are come into the universe, and there is some not quite fitting even here.  And I don’t mean to suggest a theology where heaven is our home and so…no, earth is our home.  But there’s a restlessness and a longing of living in the midst of paradox.  We’re like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” on the one hand, and on the other hand, I think it’s a value to not fit, and yet to try to accept what we believe is a call from divinity.  An arrogance, and yet worthy of us.  We really are at the center of creation.  Now that’s arrogance, and it’s also true, because it doesn’t fit. We know of our inability, disabilities, secret sins.  I’ll tell you a small story about secret sins- you can use this in one of your sermons.  It’s about the wise woman.  It was said that the wise woman in this town talked to God and talked to God regularly.  God talked back with her all the time.  And the Bishop of the town was a little put out, because the Bishop did not talk to God regularly, and God did not talk regularly either.  And so the Bishop sends for the wise old woman and he says, “I’m told you talk to God regularly.”  She said, “Yes.” “And God speaks with you regularly?”  “Yes.”  “Well, if you are on such intimate terms with God, you ask God what my deepest, most secret sin is.”  She said, “I will.”  A week later she came back, as said for, and went for.  He said, “Did you ask?”  She said, “Yes I did.  I asked God what your most secret sin is.  And God said ‘I forgot.’”  The power of that for me is, we are capable of terrible evil.  And the paradox is that God, who was the one who will judge us, seeing the terrible evil we are capable of, forgets. And there’s no justice in that.

It doesn’t match.  It doesn’t fit. 


Books Referenced in the Sermon

 Teaching and the Religious Imagination- Maria Harris

Women and Preaching- Maria Harris

Spiritual Midwifery- Ina Gaskins

Silences- Tillie Olsen

Of Lies, Secrets, and Silences- Adrienne Rich

Unspoken Worlds- Rita Gross and Nancy Faulk

In a Different Voice- Carol Gilligan

Reclaiming a Conversation- Jane Rolland Martin

Stealing the Language- Alica Ostriker

Unlearning Not to Speak- Marge Piercy

Women’s Ways of Knowing- A study

Surfacing- Margaret Atwood

Teaching Women’s History– Gerda Lerner