I’ve been struggling with how to tell this story. My attempts to craft a chronological timeline of events feel like they leave too much out, too many words feel like they’re not the right words to transition one moment into the next. And then I realized, this is not a story. This is a tapestry. A collection of vibrantly coloured threads spanning generations, geographies and worldviews that weave together to make a life. Or maybe not one life, but many, because this tapestry is bigger than me. It was started by my ancestors going back further than I can see, and its pieces don’t move neatly from A to B to C. They overlap and intertwine. They coil and collide. They dance.
From my French Catholic grandmother I inherited threads of generational trauma from a childhood of control and abuse. But also threads of love. A love of Jesus and of family. And threads of growing into a woman who knew her own mind and easily wove her faith and her questioning together into something that she could comfortably live in.
From my neo-pagan mom, threads of rejecting the traditions she grew up with that left her shamed and voiceless. But also threads of seeking the divine in other ways and with other faces. I grew up in a house with pictures of Artemis on the wall, Women Who Run with the Wolves on the bookshelf, and these too were threads in my tapestry.
And between the three of us the thread of a shared name. For my mom and me our middle name, for my grandma her first: Marie.
My dad contributed threads when he took me to a visiting transcendental meditation guru when I was 9 years old to receive a mantra. I laid my orange and my carnation in front a picture of the guru’s guru and placed the word I was given into my heart like a precious gem where it still lives nearly 30 years later. As instructed, I’ve never told anyone what it was, even the disillusioned ex-TM teacher I met years later who tried to guess. My inner 9 year old knew a sacred vow when she wove one.
My mom’s family added threads to my tapestry a few years ago at a big family reunion where after one of her cousins said grace, my grandma, her siblings, and one table out of all of us gathered made the sign of the cross in breathtaking near-unison like a flock of birds rising as one from a lake. I longed to feel in my bones that pull to connect god to my body, and connect my body to the bodies of my ancestors. I longed for that thread of belonging.
There had been threads woven into my understanding in my youth of what it meant to be religious. It was small, it was constricted, it was constricting. And there was the knowledge of real and untenable atrocities carried out in the name of those institutions. And so I didn’t know how to reconcile the faith of my grandma, of my family, with the other threads that were forming me. What about feminism? What about justice? What about queerness and socialism and love? Nothing I’d been told about at church reflected those values.
But slowly over the years as I started to dig a little deeper, was offered names and resources by friends walking similar paths, and a different kind of church was revealed to me. The teachings of Anthony DeMello offered me a thread. And Pádraig Ó Tuama. And Cynthia Bourgeault. Then I found Nomad and dozens of beautiful threads wove into my tapestry. Threads of hope.
I began to see that I hadn’t been given the full picture about church, about god, about Jesus. If these radical, loving mystics and activists could find such awe in this tradition, what had I been missing?
I saw progressive women coming into awareness of their appropriation of eastern religions and turning to figures like Mary Magdalene to see themselves reflected in the traditions of their ancestors. But to my surprise, it was not Mary Magdalene, but the Mary from whom I got my middle name, Marie, Mere de Dieu, (Mary, Mother of God) who captivated me. I googled her prayer and wove its thread into my heart. In a dream she invited me up from darkness to be enfolded in her arms.
I read the gospels for the first time at age 35 and was astounded. I did not expect an anti-capitalist, feminist, champion of the marginalized. And I did not expect to feel myself wrapped in the loving arms of a long lost brother as I sat in centering prayer one morning. Jesus was a thread I added to my tapestry and I wrapped myself in the warmth of it, more loved than I thought possible.
My grandma died the day before my birthday this year. I wasn’t able to be there when they cleaned out her apartment, but my mom claimed for me a holy water container shaped like Mary that my grandma got on pilgrimage years ago and a beautiful rosary with green beads that look like pomegranate seeds. The cross is missing from the rosary, but I like it that way. It reminds me that I can weave the traditions of the past into my life now, but they don’t have to be what they have always been.
I pass the beads of the rosary between my fingers and recite prayers that connect me to my family across generations and continents and languages. But deeper than that, the language beyond the prayer is a thread that connects me to anyone who is praying anywhere to anything. And together all of us are weaving and being woven by god.
– Jenn Johnson