I wrote this paper as an assignment in my Spirituality & Counselling course in the fall of 2020 as part of my Masters in Counselling & Spirituality at St. Paul University, Ottawa. This paper contains some minor mistakes but I have done my best to reference my ideas correctly using APA format. You will find references listed at the end of the piece.
Many have taken on the task of trying to identify, classify and illustrate the spiritual journey of humans in a way that is applicable and relevant to all of humanity. Thus far, these attempts have led mostly to linear approaches that have the individual moving from one stage to the next as they seek love, oneness, God or spirit. Although popular, these stage models face extensive critique as one recognizes the human experience is far from linear, nor is it so easily divided into a neatly staged procession (Jastrzębski, 2020; Ozorak 2003; Ray & McFadden 2001; Reich 2003). Feminist critique argues that the limitations in these models are due in large part to the lack of diversity among their architects. As they see it, the linear perspective is simply a symptom of the larger issue: that these spiritual development models have all been the work of men, and white, educated men at that (Ackermann, 1989; Ray & McFadden, 2001). Carol Gilligan (as cited in Ray & McFadden, 2001) critiqued Kohlberg’s Moral Stages directly as being a white, male, upper class perspective and all stage-based theorists as blind to this narrow viewpoint.
With such a singular cultural perspective, we are sure to lose vital aspects of the human spiritual experience and cannot assume these models fit everyone. Reich (2003) found that culture had a significant impact on the experience of religion, noting that the same religion can be practiced very differently from one community to the next. He concluded that the stage models “characterize the main shared features of the person-God relationship of a ‘similar’ group of people,” (p.232). Thus, knowing that stage models of spiritual development have been the work of such a limited demographic of humanity, one must recognize that these models are missing important and valuable perspectives of the spiritual experience, namely those of women. Furthermore, not only are women’s voices largely absent from the conversation on spiritual development, their experience of spirituality and religion are vastly different from the experience of the men who created these models. From her study looking at gender differences in spiritual development, Bryant (2007) observed the following:
As women have historically struggled with religious inequalities, it is logical to assume that their conceptualization of spirituality has been impacted by perceptions of, or direct encounters with, oppressive circumstances in a way that men’s conceptualization of spirituality has not. (p. 844)
If men and women experience such striking differences in religion, how can we assume that a model designed by men is representative of the spiritual experience of both (all) genders? Ochs (as cited in Bryant, 2007) observes “since traditional spirituality has been male-centered, it has been regarded as an extension of the male maturational process that emphasizes individuation – coming into selfhood. The new spirituality… is an extension of the female maturational process that emphasizes nurturing – coming into relationship” (p.836).
To expand this further, in an exploration of her personal spiritual experience as a white, Christian woman in South Africa, Ackermann (1989) emphasizes how her place in the world directs her spiritual path:
My doing of theology originated in my need to reflect systematically and in an informed manner on my experience of domination and oppression as a woman… I do not see liberation as some sort of personal soul massage but as multi-dimensional, embracing politics, society, culture and our religious life… Being freed is not merely an individual experience – it means, I believe, being freed into a community where love, solidarity and creativity can flourish. (p.76)
In search of a design that would be representative of the female spiritual experience, Ray and McFadden (2001) reviewed Jane Goodall’s spiritual autobiography, an anthology of African American women’s writings about spirituality and two qualitative research studies of older women’s spirituality. From their work, they conclude that the stage model is based on an individualistic, solo, usually male experience and not the relational spirituality more commonly experienced by women (Ray & McFadden). Across religions and cultures, it is common to find women at the heart of the religious community. Rosemary Radford Ruether described the role of Catholic women in North America during early settler times as “the mainstay of the faith, gathering the family for prayer, educating children, observing the rounds of feasts and fasts” (1995, p. 20). Women’s experience of spirituality is pointedly communal. Ozorak (1996) contends that women focus more on personal connection with God and their religious community, whereas men focus more on the power and judgement of God and spiritual discipline. In her later article, Ozorak (2003) suggests that the individualistic culture of the Western world limits our capacity to see ourselves as integral and inseparable from the community and that a more integrated perspective is required when designing spiritual development models.
As alternatives, Ray and McFadden (2001) propose two metaphors to illustrate spiritual development: the web and the quilt. For the purposes of this essay, I will explore the quilt as a model for human spiritual development that honours the relational component of spiritual growth. This is not an uncommon metaphor. Again and again, quilting and weaving terms are used when discussing spirituality, by both women and men. Pargament describes spirituality as “interwoven into the fabric of everyday” (2007, p. 3). Whereas Plaskow & Christ (1989) use it in the name of their second anthology: Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, with a patchwork pattern as the background of the book cover. The quilt metaphor is strikingly used by Ackermann (1989) as she describes her not always positive experience with Christianity as “a rag bag, a red bag, full of remnants of cloth, of different shapes, designs and textures, some a bit tattered and faded but still precious, others quite pristine and others whose colours don’t appeal to me” (p. 74). It seems the careful craft work most often associated with women is a strong symbol for the complexity of the spiritual experience.
Proposing the quilt as a model for relational spiritual development, Ray and McFadden (2001) narrow in on the quilting process. They observe that a quilt is made up of many unique blocks of fabric and often put together by a group of women, sometimes for someone in their family and other times for someone in need. Ray and McFadden recognize these as key components of women’s spirituality: togetherness and care for others. As for the use of the quilt, it shifts and changes over the course of a lifetime, sometimes used daily and other times put away in the top of the closet for a while with only a few squares of fabric showing (Ray and McFadden). The stitches, done by the hands of many women, are considered by Ray and McFadden to be relational patterns that although they may not always be easy to see, are fundamental to the structure of the whole. For Ackermann and her tattered fabrics, the thread that holds her quilt together is her personal spirituality within the larger, patriarchal religion which does not always represent nor fulfill her spiritual needs. For its complexity, originality and community essence, the quilt can be used as an effective model to illustrate the relational and diverse experiences of women, as well as community-oriented spiritual seekers.
But do we simply face another limited perspective when we put on the gendered glasses? Can those who take the solo spiritual journey see their experience in the mix of colours and patterns of a quilt? Perhaps. Ray and McFadden (2001) described how some quilts would be well organized and symmetrical, others unorganized and seemingly chaotic. Maybe there are linear quilts with only a few colours and patterns that more accurately represent an individual, stage-based spiritual journey. Or perhaps that is itself a limited perspective of the complex inner workings of the solo journey. Ultimately, with such variety available in the crafting of a quilt, as a model it could serve to illustrate the spiritual journey of all, should we think to do so is even possible.
Although all models may ultimately be incomplete and limited in perspective, women deserve a model that reflects their own experience. The oppression so often faced by women in the church has not been a deterrent to their spiritual quest and their spiritual experience warrants representation in our understanding of spiritual development. Among college students, Bryant (2007) found women to be more committed to religious practices and spiritual growth than their male counterparts. Kanis (2002) takes that further, maintaining that “Our bodies have everything to do with our interpretations of religion and religious experience, not only because of what we experience in our differently gendered bodies but also because of how we have been taught to understand ourselves as gendered beings” (p.1867). Kanis and many others make the important connection between women’s bodies and spirituality, with their bodies creating and holding sacred space through birth and lactation – the most simple and vital relational aspects of the human spiritual experience.
So, can the quilt be used effectively as a model for spiritual development? Based on the ability to create quilts with different shapes, colours, designs, textures and sizes, it seems that we could assume the quilt model would be able to encompass all spiritual experiences. But those who walk a solo, spiritual path with defined steps may not see their journey within the colours, patterns and stitches of the quilt. Ultimately, our attempts at defining the spiritual experience are always limited by our personal perspective of spirituality and how it plays out in our life, be it functional or ontological, immanent or transcendent, individualistic or collective. Thus, we must conclude knowing “All models are false. Some of them are useful” (Jastrzębski, 2020). There can be no singular model that represents the entirety of the human spiritual journey. With the sacred in all of us and in everything, there are as many unique paths to connection and development as there are humans. However, when attempting to structure a model of spiritual development it is imperative that the voices of women and their relational experience of spirituality are included. The ways of women are deeply sacred, and they must be woven into the fabric of our spiritual understanding.
Whether you walk a straight path or sew a complicated quilt or even find yourself walking a forest path with a warm quilt around your shoulders, your spiritual experience is beautiful and unique.
Ackermann, D. (1989). An unfinished quilt: a woman’s credo. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 66, 74–78. Retrieved October 6, 2020 from https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000820071&site=ehost-live
Bryant, A. N. (2007). Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years. Sex Roles, 56(11-12), 835-846. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9240-2
Jastrzębski, A. (2020, October 6). Development: Spirituality and Psychology [Lecture notes and PowerPoint slides]. Brightspace. http://uottawa.brightspace.com/d2l/home
Kanis, (2002). Theobiology and Gendered Spirituality. American Behavioural Scientist. 45(12), 1866-1874. doi: 10.1177/000276402128753887
Ozorak, E. W. (1996). The Power, but Not the Glory: How Women Empower Themselves Through Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35(1), 17-29. doi:10.2307/1386392
Ozorak, E. W. (2003). COMMENTARY: Culture, Gender, Faith: The Social Construction of the Person-God Relationship. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(4), 249-257. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1304_2
Pargament, K. I. (2011). Spiritually integrated psychotherapy: Understanding and addressing the sacred. Guilford.
Plaskow, J., & Christ, C. P. (1995). Weaving the visions: New patterns in feminist spirituality. Harper.
Ray, R. E. & McFadden, S. H. (2001). The Web and the Quilt: Alternatives to the Heroic Journey Toward Spiritual Development. Journal of Adult Development, 8(4), 201-211. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011334411081
Reich, K. H. (2003). INVITED ESSAY: The Person-God Relationship: A Dynamic Model. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(4), 229-247. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1304_1
Ruether, R. R. (1995). Catholic women in North America. In R. R. Reuther & R. S. Keller (Eds.), In our own voices: Four centuries of American women’s religious writing (pp. 17-60). Harper.