Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yoni: Remedial Work

One of my Facebook indulgences is to play a slow-paced game of Scrabble with an old friend. I often wish I were more of a Scrabble regular--real-time Scrabble, that is, with the enjoyment of the lovely wooden tiles and actually holding letters in my hand while I search my imagination. But Scrabble on Facebook allows me some helpful cheating, like checking the dictionary, and being able to move letters around on the board without someone watching.

I learn new words this way, too, though I'm not so sure that my retention rate is all that hot. Today's new word, I trust, is different.

YONI. Having a blank "tile" in my lot, I was determined to find a four-letter word by adding one letter to the YON that was on the board, one that would also allow me to play a Triple Word at the same time. I tried several possible endings before the "I" and was surprised and curious that YONI was actually a word!

So, to the real dictionary I went. Sometimes it's simply not enough to know that something is a word that will work in Scrabble; I have to know what it means.

Do you know what YONI means? Maybe you do. Maybe I'm exposing my immense ignorance by not knowing. It's always possible that this is another glaring sign of the remedial work I have yet to do. Maybe I'm one of the last supposedly religiously-educated women on the planet not to know what a YONI is. The fact that my theological training was at a decidedly middle-of-the-road Episcopal (thereby decidedly Christian in outlook) seminary, not given to left-leaning explorations of things like feminist theology (such things were rather in their infancy when I was in seminary), nor to comparative world religions, explains part of this.

But I still marvel sometimes that I didn't do a better job of exploring these newer realms of theology or other faith traditions during the twenty-two years that I was ordained. A wee bit, via some of the women scholars who have contributed to (and still contribute to) unfolding the origins of Christianity and the realm of "historical Jesus" studies. And a wee bit of interfaith dialogue without much research to back it up.

When I was freshly retired from parish ministry, a step off into the unknown that David and I took together five whole years ago, I began to do what I considered "remedial reading." I followed my nose, more or less.

Joanna Macy, for earth-centered reflection. Starhawk, for pagan feminist thought. The Chalice and the Blade. The Once and Future Goddess. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, in which old--very, very old, like 20,000 to 30,000 years old--artifacts and imagery fascinated me and awakened me to the kinds of religions that were around so long before the Judeo-Christian tradition I had learned so much about. I thirstily drank up the Venus figurines,  those voluptuous female shapes, and "sacred triangles" based on women's fertile, pubic regions.

I remember one day standing in the shower looking down at my not-so-toned-anymore middle-aged female body and realizing with a jolt that some places and some people long ago not only admired such shapes but associated them with God! With sacred energy and creativity.

And my eyes welled with tears as I briefly imagined how my daughters' outlook on themselves and their bodies might be so very different if they were growing up in one of those cultures where their bodies imitated the dominant sacred images of the surrounding community, its messages and media.

But I don't remember those books touching on the spiritual and theological geographies of India and beyond. (Old Europe and the Mediterranean were fascinating enough!)

Enter, then, YONI to my vocabulary.

My dictionary says YONI is pronounced with a long O and a long E sound. It's a noun (pl. yonis), from Hinduism, meaning "vulva, especially as a symbol of divine procreative energy occasionally represented by a circular stone. Compare with LINGAM [Hindu for phallus]. ORIGIN Sanskrit, literally 'source, womb, female genitals.'"

Which reminds me that there was a bit of excitement, many years back, in Judeo-Christian biblical theology, around the fact that root of the Hebrew word for God's compassion was related to the word for womb. I thought that was interesting but could never quite make it make sense to me until years later when I looked up the Hebrew word as best I could in my Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Yes, my word geekiness is evident in the fact that I ever bought one and am still reluctant to part with it. Lifting it up and down from the bookshelf could constitute weight-training.)

And there I found (though I have to admit I don't remember the letters of the root and do not care to look them up right now) that the verb that links both "womb" and "compassion" means "to be soft and to be wide."

"Ahhh. I get it." I remember feeling a door open as I got the link between a womb's soft, welcoming, expansive nature and the image of an expansive, loving, embracing God.

So now I tuck YONI into my own embrace and think of all the smooth circular stones that clutter the surface of my bureau! Perhaps I'll look at them differently next time I wonder what to do with them all or whether to keep dusting around them.

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