Finding the divine feminine can be as simple as removing the layers of doubt that limit us.
The Black Madonna is a prominent symbol of the divine feminine within Catholic tradition.
Both a spiritual memoir and a guide for readers to embrace the sacredness of their bodies and minds, Reveal (Hay House, 2014) by Meggan Watterson focuses on the need for a spirituality that encourages embodiment. Watterson found the spiritual home she sought through stories and voices of the divine feminine. In this excerpt from the introduction, she presents the seven-layered approach she took to owning her spirituality.
"Descent is not about finding light but about going into the darkness and befriending it. If we remain there long enough, it takes on its own luminosity. It will reveal everything to us."—Sue Monk Kidd
"Do you know who you are?" the shaman asked.
A thick silence filled the short distance between us.
"Do you know who you are?" she repeated, her eyes locking mine so forcefully she might as well have put her hands on either side of my face. Responses were racing through me like the reels of a slot machine. But I remained silent as huge tears started to slide down my cheeks.
I knew who I was, but I had no idea how to express it. I didn’t know how to mirror on the outside the truth of who I was within.
I had come to the shaman because I ardently believed she could flip a switch and change me. I believed that I would meet something or someone outside of myself—the right word, a wise thought, a sacred text, a spiritual master—that would touch my soul, and that would be it. Boom. I would be aligned with the truth of who I am. I would again be connected to that sense of love and freedom I knew without question as a little girl.
I was in my early 20’s, and I knew what my life so far had cost me. I was afraid, not all the time but often enough that I allowed fear to dictate my choices. The most visible example was my fear of flying, which had morphed into a full-blown phobia. I couldn’t be trusted when it came to planes. I jilted flights at the last minute like the Runaway Bride. I didn’t want to believe that I was going to let fear decide where I could and couldn’t go, so I would say yes to a trip and buy a ticket. I would even board the plane. But at the last minute, I would bolt for the door, leaving my family members or friends slack-jawed in the wake of my exit. By this point, I felt defeated. Confined. I had accepted that my life would have to remain par terre.
When a plane had taken off without me, and fear had released its grip, I would stand in the airport wondering what the bleep just happened. Fear, without fail, would turn out to be what wasn’t actually true for me. Fear derailed me in other, more ordinary ways nearly every day. Moments when I wanted to say or do something but a doubt or a disbelief in myself would give fear the thumbs up to come swooping in and stifle what I had wanted to share.
I had no idea how to feel at ease in my own skin, fully embodied and unafraid. And I wanted that freedom more than anything. Not just on flights and in difficult moments but all the time. I wanted to find a way to turn inward no matter what my external circumstances or how much fear I was experiencing, and know what is true for me, the actual rock of who I am. Not the smoke and shadow the ego emits, but a source more stable and constant.
There’s a famous BBC interview in which the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung is asked if he believes in God. “Difficult to answer,” he tells the interviewer. And then after the most perfect pregnant pause he says, “I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.” This is what I wanted. I wanted to know God, intimately. I wanted a personal experience of the Divine. I wanted to meet what is most sacred, not just one day a week or on holidays or on special occasions like weddings and deaths. I wanted the Divine to infuse every part of my life, every day, every breath.
Just as medicine—and later, psychology—were grounded in the male body and the male experience, the liturgy and spiritual practices of most of the world’s religions were codified and created by men. I marched out of my Unitarian church at age ten after reading the Bible for the first time and realizing that women’s voices weren’t a part of the story. I have wondered since then what a spirituality would look like if it were created with women’s experience and perspective in mind.
I wanted to be spiritual in a way that allowed me to be as at home in my soul as I am in my skin. Separating my sexuality from my spirituality didn’t work for me, because it wasn’t true to my experience. For me, it was only by winning back my body—by daring to really be present to all I was feeling in my body—that I finally began to connect to what is eternal in me. The body then wasn’t an obstacle but, in a way, the goal.
I have spent the majority of my life gathering stories of the Divine Feminine. Each time before getting masters degrees in theology and divinity, I went on a pilgrimage to sacred sites of the Divine Feminine throughout Europe. The first was with a group and the second was on my own. So it went group pilgrimage, Masters in Theological Studies, solo pilgrimage, Masters of Divinity.
Through the stories of the Divine Feminine in Christianity’s Mary Magdalene, Catholicism’s Black Madonna, Hinduism’s Kali Ma, and Buddhism’s Green Tara for example, I began to see that I wasn’t as much of a spiritual misfit as I had thought. There was a red thread that became visible to me. It ran through many of the world religions, especially through their mystics, relaying that the way to find the divine is to go within. And, that our potential to be transformed by going inward is exactly the same whether we are a man or a woman. The real barometer of our spiritual potential is not our sex, but the commitment of our desire to want to encounter the divine.
In divinity school and seminary I came across early Christian writings that are not well known in the mainstream, such as The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Pistis Sophia. These are texts in which the Divine isn’t out there, above or beyond us, but rather within us. And the central figures of these texts are women.
These were the voices that as a little girl I sensed were missing from the Bible. But what I really wanted to find was a text that helped me go within. I loved the metaphors of what happens by turning inward: the mystical union, the sacred marriage, the alchemical uniting of opposites. That all sounded so intriguing, so alluring, but I had no idea what any of it really meant or how to get there.
What I lacked most and longed to find was a sacred guide to the inner terrain. I needed help in navigating that unknown inner world, a person who could light my way through the darkness. I loved listening to sermons, homilies, and dharma talks, and attending satsangs, pujas, and midnight masses. I loved learning about saints, mystics, gurus, shamans, and holy people from around the world and in all traditions. But what I really craved was a sort of priestess to the churches and synagogues that travel within us wherever we go. I needed someone who could point me toward the holy temple that we can’t see with our eyes but can only sense with our souls.
This, I found, is who I am.
To me being spiritual is less about learning something new and more about remembering what I have always known. Being spiritual is a process of stripping down to what is authentic for me, for my life. Getting spiritually naked is about having the courage to be radically open about the truth of who we are with no exceptions and no apologies, to reveal ourselves without judgment or shame.
Take Salome’s seductive dance in the Bible as described in Matthew, starting around verse 14. Salome begins to shed the first of seven veils as she dances with hips and passion to win the favor of her uncle King Herod in order to then ask for John the Baptist’s head. Such is the power of a woman revealing herself in public.
Like many good stories in the Good Book, the Dance of The Seven Veils has pre-Christian roots. It is thought to have originated with the great Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The story starts with Ishtar’s seemingly innocuous wish to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, in the underworld. As Ishtar descends, the gatekeeper will only let her through each of the seven gates if she will shed an article of clothing. Each discarded piece gets Ishtar nearer to her sister, and when she passes through the seventh gate, she is totally naked.
The seven veils that Salome slides off her skin and the seven gates Ishtar passes through can be seen as seven stages of a spiritual process. The more we reveal of ourselves, the closer we come to unveiling the soul, to reaching the Divine.
Seven is a favorite number among mystics, alchemists, and spiritual writers throughout history. There is the seven-headed red dragon in the Book of Revelation. There’s St. Teresa’s Interior Castle with “seven mansions” in which God meets her “from behind a shut door.” There is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who equates the spiritual path to climbing a “seven storey mountain,” and there is Deepak Chopra, with his “seven spiritual laws of success,” just to name a few.
And then there is Marguerite Porete, a French mystic from the Middle Ages, who ascends through seven stages on her soul’s journey to find union with divine love. She was encouraged by Church authorities to write down her experience, which she did, in her spiritual masterpiece, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Sharing her soul’s story had dire consequences, however. After a lengthy trial that brought to the stand many of the foremost Church authorities (it’s a given they were male), Marguerite and her Mirror were both deemed heretical and sentenced to death.
They burned her book first before burning Marguerite at the stake in Paris in 1310. My heart started to race when I read this. Not because she had been burned at the stake—a precursor to the witch hunts that would follow in the next century—but because of the fear her story invoked. To think that it was so threatening to church fathers for a woman to meet divine love inside her that they felt it necessary to destroy both her body and her book. Truth can never be silenced, however. Like the legend of the phoenix, Marguerite Porete’s voice rises from the ashes to live on through The Mirror of Simple Souls: “But I was, says this Soul, and I am, and I will be always without lack, for Love has no beginning, no end, and no limit, and I am nothing except Love.”
Marguerite Porete wrote her spiritual memoir for the nuns of her abbey. She wrote down the seven-layered process of her spiritual transformation to meet with Divine Love within her because of her love for them. Through a women’s spirituality group I have facilitated for over ten years, the REDLADIES, and through a women’s spirituality conference I founded called REVEAL, I have met you—a whole different kind of holy woman. Smile.
Like Porete’s seven-layered journey of spiritual transformation, the seven veils of Reveal are the seven stages of the spiritual process I went through, a process that stripped away what was no longer serving me, the false beliefs that covered up the truth of who I am.
If I could give you a visual of these seven stages, they would each be within the other like a Russian matryoshka doll, like concentric circles, or a seven-course unicursal labyrinth. And in the process I describe, the stages are not hierarchical; one is not more important than the other. They are not sequential; the soul does not reveal itself in linear fashion, although for the purposes of this book, I describe the stages in a certain order. Each veil moves back in time to the events and people in my life that helped to shift my beliefs at a particular stage of the process.
I refer to this book as “a sacred manual” because it contains what I have spent nearly two decades searching for: the sacred texts and spiritual voices of women. Discovering these stories, texts, and spiritual voices of the Divine Feminine helped me to reveal my own spiritual voice. I have found what I set out to know: a direct experience of the Divine. Whether I’m seated before a lighted candle, calm and serene, or I’m plowing my way through a crowded street in downtown New York City, I can feel and know what is divine, what is true for me. And this is what I want most for you; to hear and feel the limitless love and wisdom of the truth inside you, to know and trust the voice of your own soul so much that you let it guide you from within.
What I want the spiritual process revealed in this book to give you is what it gave to me: a sense of empowerment that allows you to shed any feeling of being a victim and own everything that has happened to you; a feeling of embodiment that allows you to let go of every notion about the body except that it’s sacred; an awareness of true love as a limitless source within you, not something or someone outside you; a feeling of self-worth that lets you accept that love is your birthright, not something you must prove yourself worthy of; the audacity and authority to know that you don’t need to keep your power hidden, that we all have a direct connection to the Divine; a belief in service and meaningful work in the world that doesn’t deplete you but rather demands that you receive as much as you give; an experience of the love and support of spiritual community to remind you again and again that you’re not alone—that women do the work of saving each other’s lives.
I want this book to be the spiritual mentor that I couldn’t find but desperately longed for when this process began for me. I want you to know that there is a way through fear. You are not crazy for wanting so much more out of life. You are not selfish or greedy either.
You have been initiated.
Reprinted with permission from Reveal: A Sacred Manual for Getting Spiritually Naked written by Meggan Watterson and published by Hay House, 2014.