Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Reading: A Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe ~
Yesterday, Dan Sack, Lisa Jenkins and I went to the UCC Potomac Association Spring Meeting, held at Rock Spring UCC in Arlington. As part of the program, we were asked to consider what, in our involvement with the church, gives us joy and how that rises and expresses itself in our lives. Meanwhile, 3000 miles away, my niece Emily was laboring to give birth. Joy, labor, rising, birthing. And here we are: Mother’s Day.
As I was thinking about Mother’s Day this year, three women came to mind, though two of them never birthed a child. Their names, in order of historical appearance are: Hildegard of Bingen, Julia Ward Howe, and Jane Goodall. And I’d like to honor each one.
Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098 in Bavaria, now southern Germany and, at age eight, was “tithed” by her family to a convent. Even as a child, she experienced what she’d later call, the “Living Light.” However, visions were not her only gift.
As Barbara Newman writes in Voice of the Living Light:
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), mistress of St. Rupert’s Monastery and “Sibyl of the Rhine,” would have been extraordinary at any age. But for a woman of the twelfth century, hedged by the constraints of a misogynist world, her achievements baffle thought …
… Among the countless “firsts” and “onlies” to her credit, Hildegard was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine; the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly… with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era… known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir. (pg. 1)
As if that weren’t enough, Hildegard was also a powerful mystic who saw Love as the fiery essence of God. In one of her visions, she wrote of this Love:
I am the supreme and fiery force that kindled every living spark… And I am the fiery life of the essence of God: I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters; I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars… (pg. 23 Newman)
For Hildegard, God was not just all powerful, God was all loving and all creating. Unlike the male theologians of her time, and many who came after, Hildegard saw God as vitality, Life, and believed this veriditas, or “greening power” was everywhere. As Gabriele Uhlein writes:
In Hildegard’s paradigm, [veriditas] is the vital force that embraces creation. Without it creation would wither and become arid. This greening power is the pattern for all good. It has its source in God, pouring all fruitfulness, freshness and novelty into creation. (Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen)
This was and is a life-giving theology, a theology of birth, and it is distinctly feminine. Though Hildegard never birthed a child, she gave birth to theology, music, scientific inquiry, poetry and art—and her entire worldview was infused with a greening creativity.
Imagine her answer to the questions at yesterday’s meeting… What gives you joy and how does that rise and express itself in your life?
Seven hundred years later, Julia Ward (1819-1910) was born in New York City to a strict Episcopalian Calvinist family. After both her parents died, she was raised by a religiously liberal uncle and became a Unitarian devoted to social causes. At age 21, she married Samuel Howe, also a devoted liberal, who fought for many causes, including the abolition of slavery.
Unfortunately, Samuel wasn’t so ardent a supporter of his wife and believed she should remain quietly behind the scenes with the children at home. Julia did so for a while, birthing and mothering six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. But she also threw herself into education—of both the children and herself— and, at a certain point, despite her husband’s displeasure, began writing and speaking on important issues of the day.
Julia is probably best known for penning The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Civil War era song expressing her religious convictions that people must implement, in this world, the principles they hold true, in this case the abolition of slavery. After the war, Julia continued to speak out on numerous issues, including health and sanitation, women’s suffrage, interfaith dialogue, and peace. She was deeply distressed by her experience of war’s carnage, and in 1870 she wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation, hoping to get formal recognition for a Mother’s Day of Peace (by which she did not mean a day of rest, but rather a day without war).
Sadly, Julia did not live to see Mother’s Day recognized, and in fact, it never became the homage to peace she’d dreamed it would be. At the time of her death in 1910, neither women’s suffrage nor Mother’s Day were a reality. However, her lifework had made a difference. Slavery was ended, health and sanitation were vastly improved, and the women of our country would receive the right to vote a mere decade later.
I wonder how she would have answered yesterday’s questions? What gives you joy and how does that rise and express itself in your life?
Two decades after the death of Julia Ward Howe, Jane Goodall was born in the UK. In 1960, at the age of 26, she traveled to what is now Tanzania to observe and study chimpanzees. The study of primates (or, for that matter, science in general) was not considered women’s work in this pre-feminist era. But Jane was determined:
[When she] entered the forest of Gombe, the world knew very little about chimpanzees, and even less about their unique genetic kinship to humans. Jane took an unorthodox approach in her field research, immersing herself in their habitat and lives to experience their complex society as a neighbor rather than a distant observer and coming to understand them not only as a species, but also as individuals with emotions and long-term bonds. (Jane Goodall Institute)
Like Hildegard, Jane never birthed to a child. Instead, her creative, interactive and respectful approach to studying chimpanzees made it possible for us to learn things about these fascinating creatures (with whom we share 98% of our DNA) that we could never have learned from a more distant, or worse, disrespectful approach to such study.
As the Jane Goodall Institute, puts it:
She went into the forest to study the remarkable lives of chimpanzees— and she came out of the forest to save them. When she discovered that the survival of their species was threatened by habitat destruction and illegal trafficking, she developed a breakthrough approach to species conservation that improves the lives of people, animals and the environment by honoring their interconnectedness to each other.
Jane combines the passionate earth-connection of Hildegard with the desire for social change of Julia, and this has resulted in her creation of two separate organizations: The Jane Goodall Institute, founded in 1977, and Roots and Shoots, started in 1991.
Roots and Shoots exemplifies Jane’s commitment to creating a better world for all human and non-human children. It’s a service program for young people, whose mission is: to foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs, and to inspire every individual to take action and make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.
Root and Shoots offers an excellent model of service for youth (and, frankly, adults), encouraging them to:
- Be introspective
- Act with a purpose
- Think critically
- Be empathetic
- Collaborate and communicate openly
- Be a team player
- Inspire peers
- Remain hopeful and optimistic
- Be adaptable and resilient.
This wonderful recipe that combines the interconnection envisioned by Hildegard with the peace and equality advocated by Julia is spreading all over the world! Since Roots and Shoots began on Jane’s back porch with a dozen teens in Tanzania, it’s grown to include youth led projects in over 100 countries. Just look at what she’s birthed!
“Look at what she’s birthed.” And imagine how Jane would have answered yesterday’s questions… What gives you joy and how does that rise and express itself in your life?
So, let’s return to yesterday. After 36 hours of labor, my niece gave birth to an 8 lb baby boy named Rhys, and I’m a great aunt! At the Spring Meeting, people around the room shared their passion for nature, worship, prayer, programming, history, social justice and art (to name only a few). The point of the exercise being that, with all the needs in the world, we should each be doing that which gives us joy— because that’s the best and most sustainable way for us to make a difference!
In closing, on this beautiful Mother’s Day morning, I encourage you to ask yourself: “What gives me joy and how does it rise and express itself in my life? How can I make a difference?” And, as you do, remember these three women, Hildegard, Julia and Jane, whose lives span a thousand years and whose passions gave birth both to profound inner growth and powerful social change. In the words of the old (and, I must say, odd) Virginia Slims ad: “we’ve come a long way baby!” But as the wise and wonderful Jane Goodall reminds us:
We still have a long way to go… If only we can overcome cruelty, to human and animal, with love and compassion we shall stand at the threshold of a new era in human moral and spiritual evolution—and realize, at last, our most unique quality: humanity.