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An analysis of why their prayer became different

How women pray

 Come pregano le donne  DCM-004
06 April 2024

Do women’s prayers inherently possess distinct characteristics? I do not believe so. At their core, beyond gender distinctions, lies a fundamental need—an experience of God. The demeanor of those who pray, regardless of gender, reflects that of individuals standing in the presence of the Divine, who infuses profound meaning into their existence. They encounter and recognize the Divine in both creatures and creation, sometimes even considering them as responses to their needs, which can lead to idolatry. Throughout history and the cultures that have shaped it, it has primarily been men who have influenced and regulated this innate need. Consequently, women have seldom been the focal point of official prayer, often relegated to culturally determined expressions of their yearnings. Examples include Dionysian cults and the subjugated role of women in the cult of the Great Mother—a sublimation of cultural expectations centered on motherhood.

In summary, in my view, supported by historical and anthropological-cultural analysis, if women's prayer appears different and notably marginalized, it is largely due to the male-dominated framework that has historically reserved the role of intermediary between Divinity and human society for men.

Does the same phenomenon occur within the Judeo-Christian tradition? For the most part, yes, but occasionally, within the rigid framework of role distribution, including within religious practices, there are exceptions. It is not merely about liberating women from overt subjugation by acknowledging them as vessels of a deity. Rather, it is about recognizing that women (and children) are integral members of God's people and thus are rightful participants in prayer in all its manifestations.

It is not coincidental that at pivotal moments in Israel’s history, the prayerful songs of women emerge with striking force. Consider the Song of the Sea, a testament to God's mighty deliverance of Israel from Egypt, or the powerful songs of Deborah and Judith—women of strength and authority, pivotal in shaping the destiny of their people. Furthermore, we encounter Anna, offering a psalmic prayer of gratitude to God for the gift of her son Samuel. Many of her sentiments echo within the Magnificat, the exultant hymn of praise uttered by Mary of Nazareth, a remarkable occurrence on the lips of a woman. These examples underscore a particular mode of prayer: praise. Indeed, throughout the history of salvation, women dominate within this typology of prayer.

Traditionally, we as Christians often speak of various forms of prayer. There is the kind where we engage in dialogue with God within the quiet depths of our inner selves. This form can involve relying on pre-existing formulas, or it can entail truly standing in His Presence, emptying oneself to heed His voice. However, this distinct and invariably unique experience never solely pertains to the individual, for the believer is intricately woven into the living fabric of those who share their faith.

The Abrahamic religions, in their various expressions, emphasize this shared belonging, which can sometimes morph into a divisive identity marker for others. However, at its core, it signifies a faith rooted in encounter and divine calling. It is precisely this divine call and encounter that the Christian liturgy brings to life, uniting all—men and women alike—in a communal celebration enriched by the Spirit's presence, as we listen to the Word of God and partake in the Son's Body and Blood. In the celebration of the Eucharist, there exists no distinction among its members—not in the profound sense of gathering and participation. Any differentiation lies in roles and functions, though it is crucial to remember that the liturgy, by its very etymology, signifies the action of the people.

The initial fervor that propelled the Christian community to commemorate the Lord's sacrifice soon encountered a stark gender disparity in the allocation of roles within the assembly. At this juncture, within the Christian community, women's prayer began to diverge from that of men. More broadly speaking, we could assert that the prayer of baptized women has evolved distinctively from that of ordained ministers, all of whom are men.

The waning recognition of the sacredness inherent in the celebrated mystery has prompted women to carve out their own spaces and realms. In many instances, their encounters with God have unfolded through fundamental expressions of vocal prayer, as well as through meditation and diverse forms of mystical experiences, equipped with the necessary tools. Notably, numerous women have ascended to remarkable spiritual heights through these practices, leaving behind enduring writings that serve as pivotal milestones in Christian spirituality.

However, it cannot be said that women, with the exception of nuns, have been offered the necessary tools. Christian prayer, in fact, feeds first on the Word of God because it is through it that prayer itself realizes its status as gift, covenant and communion (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2559-2565).

Once more, Teresa of Ávila lamented the absence of this essential nourishment, while Teresa of Lisieux, centuries later, found herself devoid of Scripture and reliant solely on a sylloge. The latter expressed her impatience with mere vocal prayer, even when practiced communally.

Nuns within the Benedictine tradition were privileged to partake in the sanctification of time through what we now know as the Liturgy of the Hours. This practice significantly enhanced both their communal and personal prayer experiences, providing them with the ability to read and write—an indispensable skill for engaging in choral prayer, particularly centered on the recitation of the psalms.

Nevertheless, women were largely excluded from participating in the development of liturgical prayer, often forced to conform to structures devised by men. Exceptions were rare. For instance, we owe a hymn still sung in the Byzantine Church on Holy Wednesday to the nun Cassia. Hildegard of Bingen notably composed the Officiatura for her monastery, including the music. Additionally, it was crucial to support those individuals—often male—who possessed creative gifts and opportunities. One such example is the Pange Lingua hymn written by Venantius Fortunatus for Saint Radegonda's monastery, where a relic of the wood of the Cross was presented as a gift. This hymn continues to be sung on Good Friday.

Of course we ignore many things. And this also applies to the times closest to us. Few know of the contribution of some women to the translation of liturgical texts reformed after Vatican II. The same is true for the Benedizionale, or for prayers or prayers of the faithful elaborated, ex novo, in that context. For example, we owe to a woman the elegant Latin of the “Prayer of Blessing of the Church” in the renewed rite of the same name.

Certainly, there are many aspects we remain unaware of, even in more recent times. Few are aware of the contributions made by certain women to the translation of liturgical texts following the reforms of Vatican II. This holds true for the Benedictional, as well as for newly elaborated prayers or petitions in the context of those reforms. For instance, the elegant Latin of the “Prayer of Blessing of the Church” in the renewed rite bears the mark of a woman's contribution.

However, when we speak of reform, we are often referring to decades that now feel distant. The rapid pace of cultural change renders what were once considered achievements seem antiquated. Today, women continue to experience genuine marginalization within liturgical spaces. Moreover, they often struggle to find resonance within the rites and language that support them. While the liturgy is meant to embody gratuitousness and playfulness, many women do not experience these qualities within it. What’s lacking is a sense of total involvement—a wholehearted embrace of rituals and symbols, along with the joy and sense of spontaneity that should accompany them.

In essence, merely saying “brothers and sisters” falls short. It was inadequate in the past, and it remains so now. The liturgy must encompass our physicality, our embodied essence. Both gestures and words must cease to disregard our embodied selves, as is still often the case today, perpetuated by patriarchal and sexist language and expressions.

Women are now cultivating this awareness by creating alternative liturgies, many of which we engage with online. These endeavors are not acts of rebellion, but rather, they carve out spaces on their own terms where their unique perspectives are neither dismissed nor denied. On the other hand, in the early days of the Christian community, did they not open their homes to welcome the community? Did they not preside over the gathering themselves if their authoritativeness, their constructive as well as welcoming effort was evident? Did they not exercise the charism of prophecy, praise, tongues, consolation, discernment, and others? Moreover, was not all this richness expressed first in the community gathering for the Lord’s Supper?

If the sin of sexism has infiltrated even the Scriptures, reflecting a departure from the divine condescension inherent in the Word of God (cf. Dei Verbum 13), is it not incumbent upon us today to implement correctives? These correctives should not only restore dignity to women but also to men, enabling both genders to rediscover the joyful and playful essence of encountering God and offering praise.

Around the turn of the millennium, devoid of militant feminist undertones, I crafted a Liturgy of the Word by weaving together the heartfelt prayers of women as conveyed through Scripture. With the assistance of Sister Agar, a devout disciple, these texts found musical expression. Our gatherings were imbued with a sacred atmosphere; each session commenced with the reading of a Scripture passage, followed by its melodic rendition accompanied by gestures and instruments reflective of the text's essence. A moment of reverent silence would ensue, paving the way for an oration that breathed life into the reading and singing. The culmination of our liturgy was the singing of the Magnificat. Led by a female presider, we concluded with a heartfelt thanksgiving, bestowing blessings upon God and all present, irrespective of gender. Our performance graced the halls of the Marianum Pontifical Theological Faculty during the margins of a conference, and I am aware that similar celebrations took place elsewhere. Despite its resonance, the liturgy remained unpublished, a decision that continues to weigh on me. It was not a revolutionary act, nor did it seek to offend. Rather, it centered on the principles of full engagement, physical participation, and meaningful gestures—values shared by various groups and communities grappling with identity and existential questions, within both the Church and broader society.

The undeniable discomfort of women certainly encourages the search for alternative modalities and thus has an impact on our tired and monotonous celebrations. It warns, however, about the urgency of getting our hands back on the liturgical building site. Just as we build churches for God but above all for us, that is, to experience the joy of the encounter with each other and with God. In the same way, the liturgy is for us before it is for God. We gratuitously and playfully place ourselves before each other and before him, responding to his gift. Here gratuitousness and gift are the hallmark of our communities and prayer. It is up to women to goad communities to rediscover what it is that sets them in being: the Word of God welcomed and celebrated, lived and witnessed. The Word of God whose response is prayer, dialogue with God, but never without others.

by Cettina Militello
Theologian, vice-president of the Fondazione Accademia Via Pulchritudinis ETS.