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A female text

Wednesday 1st December

Johanna Derry Hall

"Mary said..."

Luke 1:46

When so many of the characters we read and hear about in the Bible are men, as a woman, sometimes I struggle to find myself in it.

The women we hear about are virgins, prostitutes, or dutiful wives - as I’ve read the Bible I’ve found there are other kinds of women in there too. Still, often they are silent, characters who move the plot along rather than central to the story.

But in the Advent readings, women are given voice.

This is a female text.

I have recently finished reading a book called A Ghost in the Throat. It’s about an Irish woman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill who wrote an epic poem after her husband was shot and killed. It now forms part of the canon of Irish literature, but for decades it was never written down, passed instead by word of mouth by other women who kept her words living in the minds and imaginations of the people.

Throughout the author repeats the refrain, ‘this is a female text’ - about the words of the poem, yes, but also about how it was shared (by women) and about the stories women’s bodies carry, in poetry, in childbirth, in the scars of their lives experience.

There is very little known about Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill beyond the words she spoke and the author sets out to uncover, not just the facts of her life but also maybe how she lived, what she felt, what caused her joy and brought her sorrow.

The writer finds lots about the men who knew Eibhlín, but about the woman herself there is just white space, blank pages, gaps for us to imagine into.

It struck me that Mary, the mother of Jesus, though one of the few women who speaks in the Bible, is similar to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.

All we have of her is a poem, fragments of her life told by the men around her, and white space.

I once was told that there is a rabbinic tradition that holds that the letters of the Torah are black fire on white fire - that the law or the holy word of God isn’t just the ink of what is written, but also the white space around it.

From this idea comes the practice of midrash - a holy imagining of what is in the unwritten spaces.

And it is here, in the white space of the Bible, that I find my female text.

Of course the Bible is full of women: women who are there but not mentioned, or named, or recognised.

I think about Joanna, Susanna and Mary, who also followed Jesus with the twelve male disciples, paying his way. How they stayed with him through his death and burial and how little we know about them.

I think about the Samaritan woman who evangelised a whole village, yet we don’t know her name, versus Andrew who evangelised his brother and who gets to be patron saint of Scotland.

I think of Mary who felt Jesus kick her in her womb, and who felt exhausted from sleepless nights, and who held his chubby hands when he took his first steps, and who laughed at his stories, and who held his bleeding wounded body when they took him down from the cross. How none of this is written, but how it is there, nonetheless.

What is in the white space of the words of hers we have? What kind of woman was she? To be able to say, ‘let it be to me according to your word’ and ‘my spirit rejoices in God my saviour’ when she was unmarried and disgracefully pregnant in a religiously strict and politically oppressive society.

A better woman than me, for sure.

The words we do have announce God’s reign. They sound out justice. Mary speaks in the tradition of Hagar the wombslave who became the first human to name God, of Miriam the prophet who announced Israel’s liberation, of Elizabeth her cousin calling in salvation. Her theme is carried on by Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. And by women ever since. By me, if I choose to join their chorus.

Where women are silent, the white space where their words should be still speaks, touching a hem, standing and weeping, anointing with perfume.

This is a female text.

The bodies that give birth, the hands that anoint, the eyes that cry, the mouths that speak. The white space that announces God is here, and with us, in our bodies, our hands, our tears, our songs, our physical reality. God is with us when there are words, and where there are none.

Johanna Derry Hall is a writer and spiritual director, from Lancashire via London, now settled in Edinburgh.

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