I could still smell the healing oil on my forehead after the Wednesday night church service. It was a strangely comforting smell.
The Wednesday evening Eucharist is a healing service at my church. Each week, the priest invites those present to stand if they wish. She anoints them with oil and places her hands on their heads to pray for them. Healing oil. Healing prayers. Healing touch. Healing presence.
I have spent the past year in this church, slowly recovering from the spiritual exhaustion and pain inflicted by those who decided that I, a woman and a missionary, had no real voice in their world.
I arrived on the doorstep of this church as a hurting, angry, disappointed ex-missionary who was questioning just about every component of her faith.
Over the course of this year, I met periodically with our priest. Some of those meetings were deeply emotional. She provided a safe space to voice the questions, doubts, and hurts I’ve struggled with over the past several years. The love and kindness that she and the church offered were a salve on wounds that had festered uncleaned and untended for far too long.
I inflicted some wounds myself by working too hard and not practicing good self-care while working in a different country. I also sustained deep, painful wounds when my dad died unexpectedly. Some wounds were rooted in the grief I felt after God called me to move away from mission work, my social network, and the direction I had worked toward for so many years.
Still other wounds were the result of trying to fit back into a small town and a conservative church—both of which were too steeped in patriarchy to know what to do with an independent female leader, other than to silence and marginalize her.
Over time, the wounds inflicted by the church began to fester. I believed that God no longer wanted to use me. I questioned whether God was still present in my life or if God even existed at all.
I needed healing.
I was desperate for someone who would listen and show God’s love without trying to fix me. I wanted someone to say that God hadn’t tossed me away. I needed someone to remind me I had God’s permission to hurt—to struggle through the mess of my life. I needed someone who would walk with me as I searched for whatever was buried under the pile of hurt.
I found that safe place at a church I would never have considered attending if I had not been so broken.
My church has a female priest. It is progressive. It is inclusive. And it is serious about welcoming people just as they are.
Including me—in all my messy glory.
The church isn’t magical or perfect, but it offers real community. It has helped me heal. And I don’t think this healing would have happened if the priest had been male.
I can’t imagine sitting down and discussing the last several years of my life with the openness that marked my conversations with our priest if the person sitting across the desk from me had been male. I don’t know that I would have been able to expose the depth of my wounds to a male priest. I don’t think he would have been able to quite comprehend what it cost me to be a woman in ministry.
The presence of a female priest has given me a new perspective on God. I’ve slowly begun to recognize and celebrate the feminine and nurturing aspects of God. Slowly, the love of God as both mother eagle and mother bear has seeped into my wounded soul.
There is a gentleness, a feminine—and feminist—slant to the preaching and overall atmosphere of the church. Through it, I am reminded that God is not an old, white man. I am reminded that God loves like a woman and a mother as well as a father.
A female leader can understand the trauma of serving in a church governed mostly by men in a way that a male leader can’t.
With that understanding, she prays for my healing and anoints me with oil. Because she is female, she is able to speak into the deep pain I have carried for so many years. Her presence in the church helps fight the lies of patriarchy. It reminds me that God created the feminine me in God’s image. It soothes and heals.
I am able to accept and enter into that healing in a way that I might not have if the anointing oil weren’t placed on my forehead each week by the hand of a female priest.
Usually, I rub the oil off within a short time of getting home. That particular night, I didn’t, and its fragrance lingered. Surrounded by that healing fragrance, I delved into the open wounds of my past.
I discovered that my soul felt washed—cleaner and lighter.
The love of a church, led by a priest that many would exclude from leadership based on her gender, was present in that fragrance. The love of a God who calls both women and men was present in that healing oil.
Healing. By the anointing hands of a woman, I discovered that the fragrance of God’s love is so much bigger than patriarchy, than our wounds, than our arguments over gender roles in the church.
Healing. What a beautiful fragrance it leaves.