Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ivone Gebara: Review of "Flores de Sangre"

Flores de Sangre, de La Bandera a El Salvador 1970-1979, a historical novel by ecofeminist theologian and lay missionary Mary Judith Ress was published in 2014 by Cuatro Vientos in Chile. It was originally published in English as Blood Flowers by iUniverse (2010). Ress is also the author of Ecofeminism in Latin America (Orbis, 2006), which won second place in "Best Gender Issues" at the Catholic Press Association in 2007. Ress is a co-founder of the Conspirando Collective in Santiago, a reflection group on feminist theology and spirituality and ecofeminism. Her friend and fellow theologian Ivone Gebara recently reviewed the Spanish edition of Flores de Sangre and we are happy to bring you the English translation of that review.

Fascinated by Judith Ress's novel, I will begin my presentation with the suggestive and intriguing title "Blood Flowers." Why did the author choose it as the title? Mixing flowers and blood? Locating these flowers from Chile to El Salvador as if in that medium and from there were born flowers of blood? Whose blood? What an unusual analogy! As if the blood nourished the birth of flowers...

I confess I never asked my friend Judy why the title. I think it's good I didn't do it because it gives me more freedom to interpret it and work comments on the beauty of the novel starting from it. I don't think the title means the martyrdom of women, although some aspects of the life of the nuns and peasant women in the novel and in Latin American reality would lead us in that direction. I think they are rather passionate ethical and political protagonists who from their daily lives, subvert cultural and religious codes. Martyrdom often sounds like something very masculine and very patriarchal to me! It makes me think about the etymology of the word that has to do with testifier. A martyr is a testifier to their faith and for that reason suffers torment and persecution to death. So far so good ... But if we continue a little further, if we go into the history of the intimate life of words, we find the etymology of 'testifier' and interestingly, the word comes from the Latin testis, the root from which the word "testicle" also originates. In many ancient cultures, men swore and became witnesses by holding their testicles in their right hand. It is perhaps unimportant but these subtleties of etymology and origin of words reveal forgotten layers of our psychic, cultural and religious structure. They invite us to think, to find connections, to seek other expressions.

Fighting for justice in human relations, living close to the poor with love and solidarity by choice is simply life, a life, many lives. The glorification of those who fought in life and after death are transformed into martyrs, is a device that does not always make us discover the complexity of everyday life, its traps, unforeseen events, and extraordinary beauty.

What we call martyrdom in our Western tradition is often the consolation of a logic of social and political violence that religions use to make the pain of loss bearable. I think one lives for life and that it's for life that Meg, Theo, the "Queen Mum", the peasant women of El Salvador, Chile, and so many people have lived. There aren't any eternal rewards...what there are are convictions, souvenirs, memories filled with tenderness such as Judy bestows on us in her gem of a novel. Speaking of martyrdom somehow accentuates the cycle of violence by giving a prize to the one who was violated or died because of the senseless violence of others. I can understand the logic of the proclamation of martyrs in Christianity almost as a logic of following it, but I think we have to break it or transform it. The many women in Latin America who have lost children, husbands, brothers and sisters, parents, and loved ones have tasted the bitter and tragic flavor of mortal loss and have refused to want them to be converted into martyrs. Wrongful death even for doing justice can not be exalted. The wrongful death of "good people" through weapons manufactured by "bad people" only accentuates a perverse logic and a dichotomy that must urgently be overcome. The same arms dealers serve both -- or perhaps more -- sides in the daily conflicts. So "Blood Flowers" is the memory of the creativity of female blood in life. It demonstrates that there are creative things that come from and go in many directions that only a woman's body can experience. Only singular women like Judy's characters can defend lives without weapons of war, can create new heart and hopes, can stay glued to everyday life and share the bread as a moment of love and justice.

We discover in the novel that there's another tradition that is more feminine than martyrdom and that is in the Afterword. It's the tradition of the "Sin Eaters." That tradition from my perspective and in my opinion cuts through Judy's whole novel, since most of her female characters and some of the male ones have experienced it deeply. Although it's only talked about explicitly at the end, this thread runs throughout the whole novel and creates complicity and solidarity between the characters and between them and the readers.

"There are Sin Eaters in every spiritual tradition. Because they love us, these gods and goddesses eat our shame, swallow our shit, and bear our guilt. In our own Christian tradition, of course, we have Christ, who took upon himself the sins of the world so we might be redeemed." [1] "I think you were my own personal Sin Eater, Theo." [2]

This confession written by Meg to Theo reveals aspects of this human tradition that has different faces depending on the culture but always appears and reappears as if to remind us of the interdependence between us. It is part of the human need to "bear one another's burden" in order to live and survive.

I think that among women there is and always has been something special relative to the experience of "Sin Eaters." Whenever anguish and fear confound our lives, whenever the pain keeps us from breathing, every time distance separates us from those we love, the need for "Sin Eaters" is present. Whenever doubts plague our bodies and jam the flow of life, we look for the "Sin Eaters"...

Who do we tell? With whom do we empty out the weight of shadows that suffocate us? Closeness and words become necessary...They bring out secrets, misery, make the words expressed fit a little better what is being felt and thus free us from the weight of suffering...The solidarity among us is made flesh, pulsating like blood. What we are experiencing as weakness and pain, as fear and passion, as death proclaimed, is accepted by the other without judgment and this sustains us and helps us to move forward. The friendship between the nuns in the novel is a typical example of the Christic experience of the "Sin Eater." A new meaning, a renewed theology perhaps is being drawn from the life of the characters. The Christic is no longer stated in an absolute and abstract way in relation to Jesus Christ as some dogmatic acquisition or static concept, but in the mobility of life and in every life that becomes a "Sin Eater" for the other. It is no longer affirmed only in a masculine hierarchical form as in the official theologies, but as a tender look from the eyes, from the ears, from the enveloping warmth of a hug, from the ability to bare one's soul to a friend and feel that baring accepted. This reveals that within the so-called official story of the liberation struggles in Latin America there are other little-told stories that cut across the official stories. Judy Ress has told them and rescued their poetic and political power, drawing a moving realism in her characters to the point of wrapping her readers in the narrative itself.

Stories within stories, kept in some history not officially recognized...A "historical novel" that many people don't think is real history, an account of lives taken out of hidden everyday life, of what doesn't appear, of what is almost prohibited from appearing. A story different from the official story about women and men "consecrated" to God, some heroes and heroines giving their lives in the practice of charity. In Judy Ress's "historical novel", we leave the "perfection" imposed by religious creeds and by a perfectionist imagination, we leave the ready-made beliefs, a perfect and pure white God who judges me from heaven for my impurity and imperfection...We also leave the rigid and controlled model for following the Gospel according to pre-established models. We enter into the mix of life, the daily impurity, the beauty of diversity including the diversity of impurities, the tiredness of copying abstract ideals and inventions that enslave life...Sweat, blood, stolen kisses, wounded bodies, the smell of good cooking, the freshness of the water on the body though it be dirty, beer though it be warm, a hammock in unexpected shade, feet without shoes and body without habit. Welcoming what comes as life when you no longer know where things are going or if dawn will come. One no longer thinks of "changing weak human flesh into a mass of holiness" [3] as Meg wrote in her diary as a young nun. One wants to live, to survive in a life that's changing every day. The challenge isn't to follow the established model but meeting people and ourselves in a world more complex than the ideal one was taught.

In Judy Ress's novel we read another story, beyond a tale of saintly and obedient nuns, beyond what was known and thought about the life of nuns. Nuns with cigarettes, nuns who bathe naked, who fall in love, who hug, who expose themselves to the dangers of looks filled with lust and filth, who dare to hide with the guerrilleros, to protect them...Nuns who speak up, who denounce the powerful, the deceivers of the people...Perhaps many will immediately think that "this isn't religious life anymore, life consecrated to God." And that's because they frame God in a model fabricated by themselves without realizing they're subjecting Him to their own laws and subjecting others to this very powerful and castrating invention.

The "historical novel" is dedicated to four North American women who were killed in El Salvador, four women who ventured out because they wanted to save the world from injustice, poverty, and violence. But it doesn't portray their lives; it reflects the lives of many other nuns and thus reveals a story of struggle for human dignity, a story of the soul's passions. The passions of the soul have never been the object of research by historians, much less the historians of the Church. Judy opens other windows by introducing the stories of the feminine soul in the history of the Church and the history of Latin America. She invites us to think about the influence of our passions on the course of our personal history and everyday policies. She takes them out of the hidden, the irrelevant and seemingly small world of emotions to put them in life as the power of leadership for justice and reciprocal love itself. Passions as diverse as life are shown in the characters as an expression of the vigor of their being, feeding their commitment. And, in a certain sense, contradicting the "pure" story of the Church where obedient nuns just see angels and talk to Jesus, those in the novel are passion, tears, and a song of life and death in flesh and bone. They, who are presented as following a dream of a God made man, dare to believe that their life of following God is in the midst of these daily paths filled with garbage, sweat and passion. "Following" is changed into acceptance of life as it presents itself without pre-established models. How bold! How crazy to think of themselves as fulfilling God's will the way they were living in Chile and El Salvador...And that's what they thought and believed until death. Moreover, perhaps they themselves felt like fragile goddesses choosing the paths of their lives filled with the unexpected, both good and bad. Life -- the plans aren't there, not outside, not in heaven, not in the Bible...They are lived out here amid the smell of gunpowder, blood and soil...amid the shots of an infamous fratricidal war like all wars..amid children's smiles, their tears, and the joyful pain of new births.

Conversion to the present, love for the present, a love both tender and tough, a love full of traps and moments of gentleness is drawn as everyday love, love like the "daily bread" we ask for when we need it...

I think it should be, and wish that Judy Ress's novel were obligatory reading in theological seminaries and houses of formation of religious men and women and in the faculties of history and sociology so we would put our feet on the ground again, look at it, feel it from our bodies. Get out of abstract ideals, stop imagining higher wills, patriarchal schemes of holiness, and go back to our sense of life, rediscover in it, in us, the necessary power and meaning for today...We have to be "tattooed" by today...and wait henceforth, although with pain and tears, the change in relationships that must start with us.

Everything changes...No more living in monastic fiefdoms like in the Middle Ages, no more protected convents, no more dark protective clothing, the characters in the novel go out in jeans and blouses to venture to fulfill the dream of their God or their own, nourished by the common good. They sing songs of love and nostalgia and they're the most vulnerable ones in the story. They live out their devotion to the poor of the slums and the countryside, marked by the events of the military dictatorships in Chile and El Salvador during the convulsive 60's. They live daily in this collective love of the people and within it are drawn other loves that do not hide the thirst for individuality, that don't keep personal dreams and tenderness from showing strongly until death.

As well as a chapter in this history of the Church in Latin America, Judy Ress's historical novel is a chapter in the lives of women in Latin America. Many of us, when taking on advocacy for the cause of the poor and ourselves, faced our own history, our bodies thirsting for love and tenderness. We left idealized perfection, we left imposed models and without promising anything to anyone, we let something big happen to us. We experienced in our own bodies what we had denied ourselves in the model of search for perfection that they had taught us. And we experienced the attraction of bodies in the middle of the war that took life from bodies. We experienced something of the love that gave us strength amid the bombs, fires, and destruction of the war of the big ones against the little ones and the little ones against the little ones. And we believe, we believe that someday we'll see peace, someday we'll see justice, though violent death encircles us from all sides. The love that is reborn "intertwines and intertwines like moss in the stone" [“va enredando y enredando como el musguito en la piedra”] as dear Violeta Parra sings.

Judy Ress, my friend of so many years, artist, sculptress of words, drawer of sentiments, confirms her extraordinary qualities as a novelist. She is able to bring her readers to life situations where something of what she describes finds strong echoes in our lives.

To feel and hear something new from our common body and from our memories experienced or heard, you must read the book with tenderness and attention. "Yes, I can smell resurrection when the wind blows through my open window. An open window can be a metaphor for the soul ... ," [4] Meg wrote to Theo ... And a well-written novel too ...

Ivone Gebara
October 2015

[1] Cf. p.221

[2] Idem p.222

[3] Cf. p.4

[4] Cf. p.223

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