a young mormon feminist at a catholic monastery
By Kristin Perkins
- When I went to Europe in 2015, I played tourist at many old and holy sites; cathedrals and abbeys, usually Catholic, but Anglican too. And while an emaciated Christ peered peacefully from the place of central importance and old popes clutched their identifying props in stone hands, I found myself drawn to the peripheral alcoves; to the Virgin Mary, to Saint Catherine, Saint Cecilia, and Saint Teresa.
- I couldn’t say exactly when I first began to feel desire for more female representations at church. That hunger existed in my tightly wound body before I became conscious of it. I know the feeling pre-existed my awareness because in college, when I was first able to consciously recognize what was missing, it came to me like a memory and not an idea.
I’m writing about the feminine divine and about the body. For me, as a woman raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints these are deeply connected things. I was taught a soul is both spirit and body, hand and glove.
- I’ve known the Mormon doctrine of Heavenly Mother since childhood, the information passed to me, appropriately, from my own mother. I am grateful that I was acquainted with Heavenly Mother early. I’ve known her and her comfort (rhetorical as much a spiritual) for most of my life.
Admittedly, I’ve come to feel divided over Heavenly Mother and the way she concretizes heterosexual union as the divine option for Mormons. Of course, there are still many queer things happening in Mormon theology; two men creating the world, the virgin birth, temple sealings. Still.
- It was in a flux of desire and confusion that I ended up at a Catholic monastery and farm run by Benedictine nuns where I stayed and worked for two months. Actually, I had many reasons for ending up at the monastery and only one of them was to see divinity in women. Many of my reasons were more mundane; my childhood watching (and rewatching) of The Sound of Music was not irrelevant. But female religiosity and the feminine divine was a reason. It was perhaps a stronger reason than I realized at the time.
The nuns at the monastery were not what I was expecting. They were solid people, by which I mean dependable but also fleshy, tangible, bodily. They sweat in the garden, went to physical therapy, and one wore compression socks; she would blithely give directions while someone wrestled them over her bare feet. They were rapidly aging into deafness, stiffness, and irritability. After a two-for-one deal, they were storing a couple of coffins in the closet of a guest room along with piles of wool they no longer had the energy to spin into yarn. They liked movies with talking dogs including Beverly Hills Chihuahua (one and two). Only a couple of them were gentle or sweet; the kind to sing inspirational ballads to a flushed Julie Andrews. They could be snappish or dismissive. They were also wonderful, and when I wanted to touch them, reach out my hand like Thomas did to Jesus, I could.
- Mormon’s Heavenly Mother is abstract – never seen, rarely talked about. A feminine intangible. A feminine unreal.
But in the end, what draws me back to Christianity, almost as much as its sheer familiarity, is the real body. Christ’s body and my own. Sweat. Skin. Blood. Guts. Milk. Tears. Bone. Mucus. Bile.
The Bread. The Wine/Water.
- The Sunday after my first week at the monastery, I was lifting my cup of water at the dinner table only to find my hand shaking from the effort. After hauling bales of hay all week, my muscles were spasming in protest.
- I was taught that my body was a temple. But I didn’t have many opportunities to see women’s bodies as sacred in church. There are few representations. Not in the art on the walls. Not up on the stand in church. Not giving prayers during General Conference until embarrassingly recently.
When female bodies are shown, they are smoothly painted for the canvas or carefully powdered for the television with the shoulders of angels covered for Mormon consumption. Jesus can bleed from every pore, but God forbid Mary Magdalene have pores at all. Perhaps she had large pores, perhaps on her nose. The Virgin’s placenta is never mentioned in any Christian tradition (did she have one?), and Mormons, as non-creedal Christians, have no sense of the blood from Saint Lucy’s torn-out eyes or the charred flesh of Saint Joan of Arc.
- I was often dirty at the Monastery, tracking sheep poo across the fields. I was sweaty too. Even as fall ignited the trees in blazes of orange and red, it seemed I would always work up a sweat. I fell into bed at nine or ten at night and slept soundly and soundlessly until my alarm would scream the urgency of milking the cow before rosy-fingered dawn. I was dirty and sweaty and tired in all the ways that make a body feel very, very real.
- After years of avoiding church, I went to mass every single day at the monastery. Only those who have received a Catholic baptism can partake in Catholic communion, and so I sat in the pew and watched others bow and receive the bread and wine. And I thought about the doctrine of transubstantiation, and I thought:
“There it is. The literal body. The literal blood.”
- Coming to the Monastery was practice in recognizing divinity in myself, in the nuns, in women, and in bodies. It was a practice in recognizing the dirt and blood and flesh of God, glory to Her name.
I don’t know what it means for my body to be made perfect in the next life, but I doubt it means being plucked or primped or plasticized.
I don’t always hold out hope for heaven, but when I do, it’s to imagine being held by a Heavenly Mother who smells, just a little, like sweat.
 To talk about bodies and gender is sometimes to unconsciously (or consciously) suggest that all women’s bodies look one way and all men’s bodies look another, enforcing a transphobic narrative. In actuality, to talk seriously about the body and to sanction all bodies as sacred is to recognize the diversity of bodies as God-given and the many ways we come to live in and love our bodies as divine acts of creation.
 Hereafter referred to as the Mormon Church. Sorry.
 See Taylor Petrey’s “Towards a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology”
 https://rationalfaiths.com/thou-shalt-not-photoshop/ There are, my friend wisely pointed out, exceptions that shouldn’t be swept away carelessly; Minerva Tiechert’s art, for example, or (I am told) the Eve in the newest temple video.
2 Responses to “a young mormon feminist at a catholic monastery”
Very good article, it addresses that women are not what they are protrayed as in traditional depictions if religious women, but actual people.