Storming Heaven's Gate
Amber Coverdale Sumrall and Patrice Vecchione, editors
Storming Heaven's Gate:
An Anthology of Spiritual Writings by Women
IF THERE'S ANYTHING I have faith in these days, it's that battling belief systems will eventually (sometimes centuries later) come to some kind of balance. Like viruses, alternative perspectives invade protective notions of purity. Mutant philosophies emerge: messier, more compassionate. (At least for a while--then those complex faiths grow simplified, and the cycle begins again.) The struggle around naming a feminist spirituality has, I think, reached this blessedly muddled stage. After reading Storming Heaven's Gate, a collection as mottled, cockeyed, and doubtful as your average mongrel mutt, I'm optimistic that even America's conflicted religious mainstream might appreciate these pioneers of cheerful uncertainty.
Since the mid-'80s, so-called Goddess worship and its New Ageian bedmates have taken slaps from all sides, and deservedly so. Itself a backlash to both sexism's obstinacy and Christianity's rigidity, the movement often tilted to extremes: the gender essentialism of worshipping "the feminine"; the material selfishness and spiritual smugness excused as karmic justice; the heedless consumption of imported rituals and beliefs. Despite its title's unintentionally cultish resonance, Storming Heaven's Gate reads decidedly post-New Age: For one thing, Native, African-, Asian-, and Cuban-American women represent with their own individually idiosyncratic spiritual practices; for another, many of the white contributors have been through the ritual wringer, and it's left them with some becoming humility.
In her rueful, strong story "Holy Ghost," Daniela Kuper describes a lamprey-like seeker/guru and his psychic wife, who invite home (and steal substance from) a long line of masters: "They taught breathing, Zen, harmonics, posture, dreaming, letting go, getting to God, conscious cooking, chanting, bowing... bhakti, shakti, cleansing the tongue, getting off the wheel of reincarnation, and pulling the kundalini energy right up your butt." When the ghost-guru next tries to suck his wife dry, she chooses not to find her bliss in spiritual surrender. Artist Ellen Grabiner recalls trying Native American chants, Hindu retreats, candles, "crystals, fertility medallions, and goddess beads" before her kundalini snake finally woke up and "bellowed, 'Oy gevalt, what am I doing here?'"
With 61 contributions--fiction, memoir, and poetry--Amber Coverdale Sumrall and Patrice Vecchione's anthology risks coming off scattershot and fragmentary. Instead, almost all the pieces, which range from Joy Harjo's plainspoken meditation "Eagle Poem" to Carole Maso's crazy-quilt elegy "Night," speak to each other in revelatory and amusing ways. The most striking common thread is the writers' embrace of context: As in Grabiner's "Oy Gevalt," these stories locate their searchers with reference to cultural winds and family root. These are not the New Age's Everywoman spiritual adventurers, but individuals marked by class and race expectations, illness, grief, access to the Sierras, and parental theology.
Ellen Cassady's "The Things You Can't See" shows how suburban agnosticism can leave a white child gasping for meaning. Helena Maria Viramontes's "The Moths" elegantly describes an immigrant family's brutal Catholicism and a grandmother's weirder mysticism. Dorothy Lazard explores the loss of African-American community she felt in rejecting the Baptist church. With a few exceptions, these stories do not assume to witness for others in that condescending '80s royal "we" (as in "we have detoured from the 'partnership core' of our spirituality so terribly often," a line from Riane Chalice and the Blade Eisler's awesomely dated piece; readers impatient with such saggy generalities might also dodge past the book's first essay, by Brooke Medicine Eagle).
Funnily enough, all the distinctly warty tales here less perturb or distance me than quicken my empathy. In Storming Heaven's Gate's almost banal repetition of the quest story, and its stunning varieties of paths to peace, there is an acknowledgement of both human commonality and singularity. Something holy always calls to be uncovered, as Harjo writes, "in languages/That aren't always sound but other/Circles of motion"; and the roads to it cannot be counted.
Not that the entire collection intends to be so comforting. Divided by theme
into eight parts, it doesn't really catch fire until the third, "Heart of Compassion," which per its gushy heading centers on service. The selections by Brenda Miller, Lisa Vice, and Sally Miller Gearhart are, respectively, deeply tactile, mundane to the point of raw poignancy, and horrifying (Gearhart's "remarkable" experience of "all right-ness"--"even the well-being and all rightness of every raped woman"--sets my back up). Nancy Mairs's "From My House to Mary's House," though, splashes on cold as ice-melt; the MS-crippled author of Remembering the Bone House manages to advocate charity with verve, clarity, and not a smidgen of self-righteousness.
I like too the way the editors rub truths against each other: new enthusiasms for Catholicism next to fresh renunciations; Robin Drury's mountain meditations followed by Melody Ermachild Chavis's urban trash-recycling ("The hard task is loving the earth, all of it"); praises to the light alongside psalms to darkness (the latter still rare, yet, in Elizabeth Cunningham's "Beyond Belief" and Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come," indelible). For all its peaks, the book's power is deliberately cumulative. These ordinary journeys, unlike the exotic adventures of so much popular writing on spirituality, do not aim to impress or overwhelm, but only to know and be known, in all their wild variety. With such love, or charity, as Mairs puts it, "distances dissolve. As a response to the gratuitous outpouring of God's love, charity demands that one turn one's face toward the face of another and confront there both oneself and God."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.