Thursday, February 08, 2007
A Young Catholic Nun Defends The Vagina Monologues
Over at Busted Halo, an intriguing post by Sister Mary Eve defends Eve Ensler’s controversial The Vagina Monologues – the Obie Award-winning episodic play which always seems to raise the ire of some Catholics whenever it is performed on Catholic campuses.
“Sister Mary Eve” is, of course, a pseudonym. However, according to the editor of Busted Halo, she “is a member of a community of Catholic sisters who are known for their more traditional living of religious life. She has served in various forms of ministry in several cities in the United States and has carried out extensive research in the area of the history of women religious, the history of the concept of women in western thought, and other issues regarding women’s contribution in the Catholic Church and in society in general.”
Following are excepts from Sister Mary Eve’s commentary, “Remembering V Day: A Young Nun Defends The Vagina Monologues”.
I have to admit that Eve Ensler’s provocative play was not on the top of my reading list but with the controversy that continues to accompany performances of it on Catholic campuses I decided to finally read it for myself.
What I discovered was how much I too was able to relate to it as a woman. Unfortunately, rather than valuing the Monologues as a presentation of women’s understanding of their bodies, some members of the Church have taken a morally defensive stance. I am afraid that this narrow understanding is also the way many members of my own community would approach the play. Any public discourse on the matter would be highly unapproved of. That anyone in our order would own a copy of it, relate to it or even welcome the experiences and insight of the women contained in The Vagina Monologues would be deemed improper for someone who has taken a vow of chastity. Therefore because of my community affiliation I need to remain anonymous....
If the vagina’s pop culture debut came in the late 90s, it seems to me that its male sexual counterpart had center stage all to itself for quite a long while. Having grown up with several brothers I practically needed a penis dictionary to translate the endless double entendres that poured out of them at such a rapid rate. At first I remember being grossed out. But then I gradually began to realize that that was their way of processing that part of their reality. They could talk about it and joke about it just like anything else. There’s something very healthy about that.
I, however, was not afforded the same luxury. My girlfriends and I generally didn’t talk about what our vaginas felt like, what it felt like to have our period, etc. Perhaps because our experience is a lot more internal than external, hidden even on a physical level, it remained an issue that we kept to ourselves and didn’t discuss. And when we did try to talk about it we learned that it was just not appropriate for women to discuss the functions of their reproductive system. This tendency is extremely detrimental to girls and women because it leads to keeping anything connected with our vaginas a secret—sexual abuse being the best kept secret among them.
The Vagina Monologues instead celebrates the beauty of the vagina, in direct contrast to the message that women have often had to internalize— that it is dirty and not to be touched. For the first time, women have a public forum in which to process their experience in a mature way. So, I am left with the question: Why has The Vagina Monologues — which isn’t intended to be sexually arousing or gratuitously vulgar — been protested by a vocal minority of Catholics when it has been offered on Catholic campuses? I wonder if the fully-cassocked seminarians who often participate in these protests understand the pain that many women carry because their sexuality is often denigrated, abused, and defiled? Do they have any sense of the experiences of women that brought the Monologues into existence?
Sadly, the Church will be unable to engage in a similar dialogue with those who perform, find meaning in, and relate to The Vagina Monologues until it comes to terms at the experiential level with the sacredness of each and every part of the male and female body. The polarization of the sexes that is so deeply imbedded in Catholic thought needs to be reassessed. Perhaps the most damaging has been the characterization of women as either “virgin” or “whore”, epitomized in the Church’s on-going comparison of Eve and Mary. Throughout the centuries, women have been continually reminded that they are intrinsically a cause of sin and ruin for men just as Eve was the cause of Adam’s ruin, and therefore, the human race. The Virgin Mary, on the other hand is presented as the New Eve, whose cooperation with the Blessed Trinity in our redemption completely reversed the effects of Eve’s choice.
To compound that problem even further, many theologians have taught that Mary’s virginity not only applies to Jesus’ conception, but also to His birth. In other words, some still cling to a belief that Mary did not deliver Jesus vaginally as every other mother delivers a baby and that her hymen remained intact. Though not a dogmatic or official teaching — as is the virginal conception of Jesus — this childish notion has embedded itself into Catholic imagination and theology and continues to have an impact today. An early written source for this belief is a second century text which the Church never accepted as authentic called The Protoevangelium of James. In this text the tale is told that as Joseph is returning with a midwife to Mary, they together witness a miraculous birth. The midwife has to ensure for posterity’s sake that Mary has indeed not delivered the baby vaginally, so, much like Thomas did to Jesus’ wounds, she examines Mary to make sure that her hymen was intact.
So Mary’s womb was worthy to carry the Son of God but her vagina couldn’t be the path that brought him to birth? Somehow the Son of God was not born the way that He Himself had ordained human beings to be born? If a woman’s vagina is penetrated by anything, including a baby, she loses her virginity?
This idea might be laughable today were it not still being taught. A friend of mine who is pursuing a masters degree in theology at a seminary in the United States was incensed a few months ago to hear her theology professor reiterating this teaching. I had a similar experience when a Monsignor smugly remarked to me that the recently released film The Nativity did not show a “Virgin birth.” Scripture, on the other hand, does not even hint at an unnatural or miraculous birth. Rather, according to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, the very phrase that Luke used in Luke 2:23 — “Every male child who opens the womb…” — suggests a normal birth.
. . . I wish our model for encountering this controversy was more in line with Jesus’ encounter at the well in the Gospel of John. When a “promiscuous” Samaritan woman approaches Him, what does Jesus do? Without any props to emphasize His divinity, He dialogues with her, asks her questions, touches her most delicate and painful reality—her sex life. Something about how Jesus addresses her deeply touches her. His demeanor communicates profound respect for everything about her. Women who have been used by men are sensitive in picking up the most subtle cues aimed at them but Jesus’ cue so thoroughly transforms her into an apostle that she goes back to her hometown and tells everyone about the new man in her life! She’s so convincing that they all welcome Jesus as their Messiah in whom they find the wellspring of eternal life. In John’s telling, Jesus is not afraid to come close to us in our most profound vulnerability to heal and save.
Taking our cue from Jesus, if the Church stopped protesting the Monologues and instead started engaging women in an honest, healthy and mature dialogue perhaps The Vagina Monologues would no longer be necessary. Until then, I’m afraid we women will have to remain content with a monologue and pray that someone is, at the very least, listening.
To read “Remembering V Day: A Young Nun Defends The Vagina Monologues” in its entirety, click here.
For responses from BustedHalo.com readers to “Remembering V Day: A Young Nun Defends The Vagina Monologues,” click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts: Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code and Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy.