Author’s Note: This article is reprinted with permission by Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, December, 2013, v. 19, n. 4, pages 52-59, by Laura Thor.
This article, while written for trained spiritual directors, is also for anyone interested in ways of understanding transgender people that keep to the core values of the Gospel and Torah: social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Religion is the universal cultural process reflecting our human reaching to know the Sacred. Therefore, it is not God who errs when religion marginalizes who it fears. We have to do better theology. Let’s get to work.
There are two errors, both mine, for which I apologize and wish to correct. First, the title of the wonderful book by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, was incorrectly spelled and should be: The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. I accidently typed “of” instead of the accurate “on.”
Also, when describing my experience of the Hebrew word for “trust” in God, bitachon, I was negligent to explain that I wasn’t defining the term but illustrating it. So it’s worth some references to further clarify the term, and I’ve found three that help: Bitachon is described as a correlative to emunah, faith, as explained by Tzvi Freeman in his article “What is Bitachon? Real Confidence” in Chabad.org. In the website, “Hebrew for Christians” bitachon is described as “placing confident expectation in God.” In the Jewish Chronicle, writer Rabbi Julian Sinclair writes of bitachon:
The root batach literally means to lean or rest on someone or something. Batach b’ means “to trust in”, usually in God, when used by the Bible, eg: “It is better to trust in God than to trust in any man” (Psalms 118:9) or “I have placed my trust in Your lovingkindness.” From this, bitachon comes to mean faith and is often used interchangeably with emunah. But it means faith in an active sense, consciously placing the burden or one’s concerns and worries on God and trusting that things will work out.
Athough I hadn’t come across Sinclair’s reference before writing the article, I somewhere picked up the idea of ‘casting one’s burden with God.’ I envisioned God as a large pack mule, loaded with provisions for a long journey. Or God as the lading agent, who weighs or measures my worth, not to judge me, but to insure my proper handling for shipping into the next place in life I need to be. From that, I got ‘casting one’s lading with God.’ But this is not a fair definition, and so, my apologies.
Transgender spiritual directees are profoundly marginalized “hidden” seekers of God and their spiritual birthright to simply live as they are intended. Many who “come out” are ejected from their religious communities; others live in secrecy and are unable to locate themselves in Creation.
Today modern biological and psychological knowledge demonstrates that God creates a diverse humanity. People of diverse and varied gender, called transgender or transgendered, are the latest once-silent minority to step forward from a shadow existence. It is my experience that spiritual directors, among a variety of pastoral and spiritual caregivers, may be uniquely free to honor and encourage these seekers’ emergent truth as being made in God’s image.
We aim to cultivate with our spiritual directee the capacity to sit in awe of what cannot be understood except in God’s time to unveil it. Together we tend this liminal space and time through which God will birth Seekers into their intended identity. All the more so for transgender seekers, whose emergent self-knowing needs a space in which to open themselves to their divinely ordained becoming over time. Protecting that space is easier if we understand the language and meaning of gender and gender identity, and what it feels like to be transgender, which this article will describe.
But information is not enough if we are to be God’s assistant midwives. Most important is our taking a radical stance of blessing, that is, not merely accepting, but celebrating all varieties of identity among people. I will demonstrate prayerful and contemplative use of Biblical texts, specifically Jewish Torah, that grounds us in a theology of being and becoming. Spiritual companioning can assist the religiously injured transgender person in the process of uniting soul, psyche and body in an unfolding chrysalis of Created being.
The middle-aged clergyman seated across from me gazes at the candle between us. Then his eyes find a spot on the floor and his shoulders sag. “I’m no longer raging at God for making me this way. But I feel no blessing in it.” Silence. Then: “I know some other cultures see this as a holy status.” I nod. He continues, “I will lose everything…well, not God maybe…” And finally, “How did God call me to this wonderful vocation, give me a loving family and yet make me a transsexual?”
We sigh together, sending up prayers in the stillness save for March rain spattering the window. I watch his face for signs of hope for a life worth living despite radical change for his family, his marriage and within himself. I know despair can so easily take hold. He is a preacher well-read in spiritual literature and Biblical texts, and he knows his dark night of the soul from his clinical depression; over a year of therapy he realized he was neither deluded nor broken, only born with a female mind in a male body. Although not all transgender people suffer from the body-mind incongruence called gender variance, they can develop severe and suicidal feelings of gender dysphoria when the gulf is large and conflictual. My spiritual directee’s dysphoria stemmed from trying to live two conflicting roles: the one that fits his male body, and the other that fits his true inner female self. Psychotherapy with a specialist helped him discern that there is no cure except to begin the process of medically supervised transition of his body into the right sex to fit his female gender.
We talk and pray together for strength to live the truth at the core of his being, which while terrifying, holds the chance for an authentic life. He senses God calling at the root of his soul, which held the truth hidden since childhood when he was punished for dressing in his sister’s clothes. Now he finds consolation in late-night walks on moonlit rural roads, in women’s slacks, shoes and sweaters that feel “right” and let his body move in more natural, familiar ways. By day he is desperately afraid: what will God do as he becomes “her”? What will happen to his family? Will all the nurture he gave his congregants be lost in scandal?
He and his wife love each other very dearly. They teeter on the brink of an amicable but dreaded divorce as they explore new boundaries for an abiding friendship. They have yet to tell their grown children and grandchildren. His church will likely fire him. But these are challenges with solutions. Here in this companionship hour, his worst fear is maybe there is no God Who intended him to be two-gendered; maybe there is no purpose or meaning in it at all. Perhaps he is simply the victim of nature’s brutal forces: errant DNA or an accident in the womb. How can God be behind this? What can God be up to? He gazes outside at apple-budded branches brushing the windows, tears dripping off his chin.
I mention the possibility of God’s love. Locating a slim book on my shelf and handing it to him, I smile gently, my own eyes tearing up a bit. Together we know how dreadful is the refining Love that insists on ravishing our whole selves. The book is Rabbi Shefa Gold’s prayerful reflection on the Song of Songs, In The Fever of Love. She translates Chapter 2.4:
He brought me to the tavern and his banner over me is Love. (v.4)
Gold reflects on how intimacy with God means we will be taken, our minds and bodies rattled and penetrated, for God ravishes us entirely. We fear to give our will for God’s larger Will for us. But God persists. Gold comments:
“I am brought to the “tavern”/Against my small will,/My will to stay separate, distinct from the cosmos./There is yet a larger force within me,/A larger Knowing that connects my Self/To the farthest star; I am a microcosm of the Universe./It is that Will that binds my spirit/Dragging me to the “tavern,” where I become intoxicated,/ Where I can finally surrender./In the “tavern” I am claimed by Love./There “I” am finally defeated. Yet in this defeat,/I am ravished;/God finds victory within me.”(p.23)
Cover me with blossoms, refresh me with apples, for I am in the fever of Love. His left hand beneath my head, His right arm embracing me. (v.5-6)
“What looks like sickness is true health. What passes for brokenness is only the path to my wholeness, the place where passion burns like the burning bush, with flames that don’t consume, but give life with every spark. When I surrender to the “fever of love”; when I consent to the embrace of My Lover; when I stop resisting and instead rest, lean into those arms that support me…I am held in the contours of Life…This fever is the sun at the center of my heart, shining out, ripening the fruit that is me.” (pgs.23-24)
Our work is to sustain the Seeker in knowing his or herself and drawing closer to God as the Ground of Reality; together we prepare the ego to surrender to the soul’s deeper, truer self-knowledge.
It is months later when my spiritual friend begins dismantling the false male self behind which she was imprisoned. She looks to God with less fear, more reliance. She admits the need for a new ministry, for her preaching has subtly changed and her congregation and denomination are no longer “home.” We encourage her heart to remain open to sacred callings toward some unknown landscape of God’s making, where she must become only herself. She chuckles ruefully upon learning that God’s order to Abraham (and by extension to Sarah), the Hebrew words “Lech lecha,” mean not just “Go out” but “Go to yourself,” as pointed out by scholars of Jewish homosexual and transgender theory. (Aviv and Erlichman, 24-28) In this rendering, it is we ourselves who are the dearest of God’s landscapes to be explored. Her gradual coming to herself, by beginning medical (feminizing hormone) treatment, is an embodied prayer, a gesture of trust. Jewishly, trust in God is called bitachon, understood as “casting ones lading with God,” surrendering all we are to God Who alone can safely guarantee our worth. Perhaps she will be conducted into a ministry through which her work beckons frightened people forward with their whole selves, into an embracing Godliness.
Meanwhile in a nearby congregation, a transgender lay minister made the bumpy journey while relying on her nerve and her God. “Linda” was born male and underwent therapy, hormone therapy and surgery ten years ago. Still married to her wife of 35 years and having raised their children in their church, she had long been a Eucharistic minister, but when she came out as a woman some congregants refused to receive Communion from her. Her priest, whom she had once trusted, failed to intervene. But a few years later, a new priest set a different tone. At his first Sunday Mass there he observed that Linda’s line for Communion was shorter than the others as some people crossed over to his or the other lay minister’s line. A firey, large man, he dramatically strode over to Linda’s station, took a host off her plate and solemnly carried it back to his station where a woman had just crossed over. Seeing the communicant’s mouth already agape, he popped it in, “THE BODY OF CHRIST!” She mumbled her “Amen.” And that was that: no more crossed lines. On that day, her priest was her spiritual director, and perhaps, she was also his.
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