A Call to Womanhood: The Highly Favoured

A Sinner Like Me by Caitlin Connolly. Ms. Connolly is an artist fulfilling her calling of understanding and depicting the nature of womanhood. She is doing her work and doing it well. Find her art here.

I spoke to an amazing gathering of women in my childhood hometown last week. They were kind and lovely and amongst the crowd of those that were unfamiliar, I could pick out faces that helped shape me into the person I am today. It was a unique opportunity. The talk I gave is shared below. 

Hello sisters. My goodness. It is so amazing to be here.

It was shockingly difficult to pick a topic for tonight. You know that saying, you can’t go home again? Well, I think you can. You just can’t go home and give a talk without feeling completely overwhelmed. When we drove down here two nights ago, everything was still unwritten. As the car rolled along, my mind bounced from subject to subject. The symbols of ancient womanhood, relationships, sexuality, the feminine divine, the current state of the worldwide women’s liberation movement, birth and on one day apparently very much in need of caffeine, The Ten Best Ways to Avoid Your Own Children.

Before we left on that drive, Riley had given me a blessing. He said not to worry, he said the talk would come to me. That I simply had to allow myself to be a ramekin for the Holy Ghost. Of course when I heard ramekin I thought french onion soup and creme brulee and was basically distracted by kids screaming in the backseat and visions of french peasant food until late into the night. And then when the car was quiet and the desert almost dark, I relaxed and sat back and felt the thing I was supposed to say. It came and wrapped itself around me and it was more delicious than any potted cream based dessert could ever be. (If you can imagine that.)

Sisters, you are so incredibly loved. Oh my goodness. Everything about you. The outlines of your hearts, the weights of your worries, the potential you carry within you and the place you are in this life right this very instant. You are loved by a God that understands the workings of the universe, a God that knows you are no less intricate or beautiful or inevitable than that star filled expanse. He hopes for you. He hurts for you. He waits for you.

He loves you.

It seems enough, doesn’t it? To be loved by an infinite God? What more could be wanted? Let us acknowledge that blessing, rejoice in it and then move on to the molten lava cake I know we are being served for dessert. What more is there to say?

The great glory and great inequality of this existence, is that with the Lord there is always more. More to be discovered, more to be received, more cause for rejoicing. And today, if you and that cake will wait just a moment, I want to share the second part of that impression that came settled within me on that familiar stretch of desert and sky.

Sisters, You are vital to the work the Lord will seen done here. And I am not just talking the maintenance behind mortality. The hospital corners and sweeping up on the edge of the great works of others. (Although there is that, and that can be glorious, too.)

For better or worse, most of the world’s inhabitants have lived in times of men. Our male counterparts have controlled land, law and the battles begun and ended. Someone once claimed that Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors”. He didn’t, but the truism is, well true, nonetheless. I would add to it. History is written by the victor’s male historians. Consequently, until very, very recently women don’t get much historical play.

We are sprinkled throughout the records as quietly supportive wives of great manly figures, prophetesses whose cries of doom always go unheeded, because, I mean, who listens to woman? Cassandra shouting her warnings on behalf of Troy come tragically to mind. There is the occasional warrior woman. She is always mistrusted in her time - for what woman would wish to fight for something she believes in when there is knitting to be done? The warrior woman generally suffers a grievous end. Joan of Arc clad in armor and awash in flame is one of the most poignant examples. Of course, if a woman used her sexuality in any fashion good or bad, the male writers of history decided she earned her page in the books of record. (Men can be funny about sex, that way.)The page was usually about how her wantonness destroyed the helpless males around her, but in this game, a page is a page. And I have a hard time begrudging any of my sisters the space earned.

Our holy books aren’t much more inclusive when it comes to the fairer sex. They are afterall historical records, written by men - who while, good and holy and inspired - were very much products of their time. Thankfully, eternally thankfully, for you and I...the Lord is much more inclusive. Not just inclusive, He is expansive. As women he has given us a great and specific work. It is a work our sisters have been doing since Eve awoke in the garden. They have been doing it quietly, loudly, slowly, quickly, reluctantly and with the earnest desire of true believers. While the effects of their efforts remain, most of those women’s faces and stories have been lost to prejudice, indifference and time. You know, time has a funny way of bending back around, I think we will know their works someday. I really do.

We must be patient.

Our scriptures may not be filled with the lives and stories of women, but they are framed by them. When the Lord really means business, when He is ready to do something that will light the Universe or break open truth or save all of mankind, He, in all of His infinite wisdom, makes sure that a woman is there.

So my dear sisters, today we are going to talk about three women that the Lord trusted with His truest, noblest plans. And in discussing them, we are going to discover how the work they engaged in, that brilliance that shines down on us thousands of years after the last time they put on shoes, worried about dinner, heartached for a child - is no different than the work that you and I engage in every single day.

First Eve. The mother of all Living. A woman that has been hated and loved and mythologized till she seems too distant for us to really know. I wish this wasn’t so. I think maybe she understood she would be removed from us by rumor and the slow creep of time. That knowledge must have hurt. To have been so brave and wise and vulnerable and know that your daughters! your sisters! would be told you were weak and wanton and the literal downfall of mankind. When in reality, you had gathered up your courage and stepped out into the wilderness so that mankind could find its place on this god given earth.

We can learn so much from Eve. Her story is panaromic and still unraveling before us. But for tonight, I am just going to touch on two things.

The first is our birthright of choice. We are daughters of Eve, the woman that made the choice to eat that controversial, history changing, apparently delicious fruit.

Beverly Campbell said, “The grand challenge given to Eve and to all women is that of being able to discern, embrace, articulate, and then give life to that which is essential, as opposed to that which is merely important.”

Like Eve in the garden, we are allowed the gift, the power, the sometimes backbreaking responsibility of choice. And as women we are able to wield this power in unique ways.

But wait? Did Eve really CHOOSE to eat of that tree? I mean wasn’t she a ignorant innocent? A babe (meant as a child, but I bet she was a babe in the other sense, too) in the wilderness susceptible to the ramblings of a reptile? Where is the greatness in that? Where is the agency? And how can it have any relation to my life?

Those are good questions. (Women are supposed to question, too.) Luckily, greater minds than my own have asked them also and provided answers.

In Genesis 1:16 - 17 it reads, And the Lord God a commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Mmmmmkay. That sounds pretty cut and dry. But as my dad continuously (and rather obviously) points out, "Words have meanings". And the meaning of one of those words is not what we think it is. When we read “The Lord God commanded” we think 10 commandments and the unbreakable laws of heaven. But this commanded is different in origin than the 10 Commandments “commanded”. According to Hebrew Scholar Dr. Aschkenasy the command used in the Creation story is from a different verb form. Its usage indicates a strong, severe warning. This type of warning was often temporary in nature, implying that at some future, unspecified time it might not apply.

In considering this difference Beverly Campbell said, “As I was thinking of this I thought of the warning we give our small children who, in their tender years, must be protected as to matters that involve life and death or injury. Such a warning might be, "Do not, under any condition, touch the stove." "Do not ever cross the street alone." Do we mean that they are never to cross the street, or use a stove? Of course not! What we intend is that until they have learned enough to make appropriate decisions, the stern warning, indeed prohibition, applies. However, we also know that as our children are prepared, they must step out into the larger world and make choices.”

Okay, so perhaps it was a temporary law, maybe when the Lord came and walked with Adam and Eve He was teaching them, counseling with them, preparing them for the day they had learned enough to take that first bite. And on every walk Eve listened to her God and grew closer and closer to the woman she was meant to be.

There is another word that brings us much concern. We are told in the third chapter of Genesis, by Eve herself, that the serpent beguiled her. Where is the choice in that? Again, the ever lovely Dr. Aschkenasy comes to our rescue. She explains that the Hebrew word used in the Genesis story that has come to be interpreted as "beguiled" is a rare verb form of unusual depth and richness. As it is a form no longer in use, it is almost impossible to translate. She says, "It is safe to say that it indicates an intense multilevel experience which evokes great emotional, psychological and/or spiritual trauma."

She goes on to state that the use of this word in the biblical narrative "makes it clear that Eve was motivated by a complex set of inner drives, anchored not only in her physical but also in her intellectual and spiritual nature.”

Eve took that bite seriously.

Many biblical scholars take the argument one step further and say that when God punished Satan in the Garden, it was  not because he convinced Eve to eat the fruit. It was because he deceived  her about his true nature, it is because he tried to make himself a part of a story that was already playing out.

Eve knew what she was doing. She knew what it would cost her. And she knew how it would benefit humanity. And she knew, she knew it was the greater part, she knew it was what the Lord would have her do.

Our dear Sister Campbell always has the best words on Eve and these are no different, she goes on to say, “as we understand that Eve courageously, heroically, and with enormous generosity of spirit claimed that most precious aspect of agency, the right to exercise spiritual and personal integrity, we begin to see better how to live our lives. To choose to act or think in ways that God has counseled is to arm yourself with His power. As you choose good over evil, right over wrong, action over inaction, you open your soul to the possibilities and His power is unleashed. Weakness, powerlessness and inadequacy are replaced with strength, control, and wholeness.”

Sisters, so much of our work here is buttressed by our sacred ability to choose. And your choice does not have to look like my choice. Through prayer and personal revelation, each of us is allowed to counsel with the Lord. To understand his will. To take the time to gather the courage. To know that we are allowed to, supposed to, ASKED to take that one delicious bite. (Does anyone else here think she ate the whole darn fruit?)

Where is Adam in this? Well, he is there and he is fulfilling his role just as she is her own. And when taken together, they bring us to the second thing Eve will teach us about tonight. The ever beautiful, frustrating, emboldening adventure that is marriage. Hugh Nibley provides us with one of my favorite quotes on the subject, he says, “So who was the more important? Eve is the first on the scene, not Adam, who woke up only long enough to turn over to fall asleep again; and then when he really woke up he saw the woman standing there, ahead of him, waiting for him… In all that follows she takes the initiative, pursuing the search for ever greater light and knowledge while Adam cautiously holds back. Who was the wiser for that?…The first daring step had to be taken.” And while I am glad she took that first bold step, it must be noted that these two brave souls were truly partners. Partners? Last I heard she was a “helpmeet”,  a word Merriam Webster defines as: “a companion, a helper; especially the wife”. That doesn’t sound so equally yoked to me. Again, words mean things and the original Hebrew text here is mindblowing. The word translated into the english helpmeet is a combination of two root words, ezer and k’enegdo.

The word ezer also combines two roots: the first meaning "to rescue" or "to save" or "as a savior," sometimes coupled with the concept of majesty, and the other meaning "strength" or "to be strong."

The second Hebrew word, k'enegdo, is identified as meaning "equal."

The original text Genesis 2: 18 would be read as follows: "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a majestic, saving power, equal with him, to be his companion." When Beverly Campbell shared this new translation with her seventy year old sister in law, the letter the dear sister sent in response was lovely and poignant. Part of it reads, I am very excited about what you have found; especially the meaning of the word "helpmeet" and the implication it gives to Eve 's position. I sat frozen, actually feeling the blood drain from my face, awed, with a joyous feeling I will never forget, but crying at the same time! I wondered why I should feel all this emotion. Suddenly, this thought came to my mind clearly: "Its true—I  am who I always thought I was! "

She had to wait seven decades to know she was who she always thought she was. We don’t have to wait. It is one of the great blessings of our time. So, Adam and Eve were equals. True partners.

She takes of the fruit and even though he knows what it will mean to follow her, to pursue the path she has chosen, he takes it from her and eats, too.  He makes the choice, too. This is such an important point. He is not the weak man harangued into the eating the fruit that tradition would give us. He is every bit Eve’s counterpart in wisdom, strength and courage.  He knows that he is not complete without her, sure. But our Adam is no fool. He understands they have a work to do, one that cannot be done without complete partnership. (It may not be happening in his time, but when does it ever? Remember the last time you told your husband it was time for another child? How he gulped and widened his eyes and then said, "okkkkaaayyyy".)

And then sisters, we get to be privy to one of the greatest love stories this earth has seen. Adam eats the fruit, the Lord carefully and lovingly dresses them and then the two mortals set out into the wilderness. Just the two of them against every triumph and trial. I like to think they did it one step at a time, holding hands. Now be honest me, after the wedding and the reception, didn’t it feel a bit like you had been cast out into the wilderness. A big wide world and just the two of you? Hasn’t the labor been hard and the blessings great? Eve’s marriage is one that we can each aspire to and in our best moments, is one that can emulate in our own time, our own homes. A man and woman that trust each other and listen to the Lord.

And then the years passed and Eve’s children had children and more children until the bible was filled with more begats than you can shake a stick at. Hundreds of years become thousands and man made less of woman than God created her to be. Eve became the bearer of sin rather than the bearer of life.

Then, when the garden was just a shadow of a story, a little girl is born in the humble village of Nazareth. Mary would soon be called to be the mother of the Savior of the world. But upon her birth, there was little remarkable about her, certainly nothing the world would have considered worth noting. Since she was of the line of King David, she was truly nobility. However after years of Israel’s captivity and years of foreign wars and domination, her family had lost its status.

The mother of our King was a peasant.

Sisters, can we take a moment to marvel at the similarities between our situation and that of the mother of Christ? On the surface there may be little remarkable about you, surely nothing the world would stop and praise. (I keep waiting for worldly praise for my little messy family in my little messy house, but it just isn’t coming.) You are daughters of God, you are born of a divine heritage, we are connected to the line of the One True King. However, captivities and war of spirit, gender and religion, misinformation and simple forgetfulness have robbed us of our status.

We live as peasants.

But that doesn’t change our lineage or the great work we are meant to do anymore than it changed Mary’s.

Mary was most likely no older than fourteen when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. Just fourteen and asked to help shoulder the events that would bring about the salvation of the world. So young and yet her dialogue with sweet Gabriel continues to instruct us in the thousands of years since the words were spoken. Gabriel introduces himself to the scene with words of blessing and Mary finds herself troubled. Who is this? What is he saying and why in the world is he saying it to me? The Angel understands her concern and comforts her, Fear not. The lord loves you, he favors you. Little Mary relaxes, Okay. I have found favor with the Lord. Fantastic! And then the Angel drops the biggest plot twist in the history of man. Yes, you have found favor so...You are going to get pregnant, it’s going to be a boy and you are going to name him Jesus. Oh and by the way, it is going to be God’s son and his kingdom will have no end.

And what does Mary do? She doesn’t tell him it is impossible, she doesn’t complain about the undue burden and SHE CERTAINLY DOESN’T CLAIM SHE IS NOT WORTHY. She simply asks how it will be done. The Angel explains it in words you and I still don’t completely understand and then ends with the phrase, “for with God nothing shall be impossible.”

As far as I am concerned, Mary’s following response will go down as some of the sweetest and strongest words ever spoken by a woman.

“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”

Afterwards the scriptures tell us she went with haste to the home of her cousin Elisabeth. In a talk from the 1991 Ensign Susan Black writes, “This glorious meeting of two chosen women is unparalleled in recorded history. As the expectant mother of John welcomed the expectant mother of the Savior of mankind into her home, Mary openly expressed her joy to Elisabeth, exclaiming:

“Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

“For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48–49)

I love that those verses from Luke.They are so full of empowerment and a knowledge of self. Mary has not just accepted the Lord’s charge. She is wholeheartedly accepting the blessings that come with it. She is joyful and sure. Heck yes, she is going to be the mother of the savior of world.

Sisters, we were all sent here with a mission. There are works we will seek and do. And others that will be given to us, unseen and unbidden. And while none of us will bear the Son of God, all of us can learn from his mother. When presented with the promise of unexpected tidings, she was troubled and then allowed herself to be comforted. When those unexpected tidings were of a nature even she could not have anticipated, she did not blindly take on the burden. She calmly asked how it would be done. Once the explanation was given, she rested it in her head and then with complete faith and an understanding of the loving nature of our Heavenly Father she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”.

In our lives we will be called to do things we that feel bigger than the sum of our parts. We are not asked to do them blindly. Comfort is waiting and readily given. The way, although sometimes rocky or torn or heartbreaking, will be provided, We are each of us the handmaids of an ever loving God. And sisters, if you learn anything tonight, I hope it is this: You are worthy of the work He will have you do.

So Mary accepted the Lord’s calling. And in her case, as in some of ours, the calling was motherhood.  Yes, motherhood with its spit-up and tantrums and sullen teenagers and stretch marks and breasts DOWN TO HERE is a calling. And my, what a truly glorious one it is. Because of her uniquely sacred circumstances, Mary understood something that many of us know at one time or another and then promptly forget in the haze of bottles and scraped knees. Our children are not our own. They are spirits that co-existed with us before we began our mortal journey. They are our brothers and sisters. When they come to us their worth is eternal and unchanging. We are tasked with teaching them, guiding them and helping them achieve the things the Lord has set out for them to do.

Mary had so little of worldly worth to give her son. When she presented him at the temple to the Lord, she did so with a pair of pigeons - the offering of the very poor. She would have been able to give him very little culture or formal education. But she gave him what truly mattered, a body through birth, a home full of love and when he was very young, before he was teaching it in the temples himself, a loving understanding of the Lord’s word. At the risk of sounding flippant I must say, if it was good enough for the Savior of the World, it is good enough for my kid who thinks the world begins and ends with Dora. We need to unburden ourselves of the unnecessary trappings of parenthood and revel in its most essential aspects. Is your child being raised with love? Are you teaching them to love Heavenly Father and Christ? Are you helping them nibble (feasting comes later) on the word of the Lord? Good. Stop worrying. You are giving your child exactly what Mary gave her own.

It is enough.

And finally, the last of the three women we will speak of tonight, ever faithful Mary Magdalene, who is such a powerful example of being both a disciple and a witness. We don’t know much about Mary. But what we know is powerful. Within the four gospels she is mentioned 12 times, more times than some of the apostles. When she is mentioned along with other women, her name is always written first. According to Carla Ricci,“The place she [Mary Magdalene] occupied in the list cannot be considered fortuitous,” because over and over Mary Magdalene’s name is placed at the head of specifically named women, indicating her importance. The significance of this is further strengthened when one examines the lists of the named apostles. In Luke, the he writes that Jesus “took Peter, John and James.” Ricci writes that because Peter occupies the first position in the list, that place can be considered the position of highest importance. Mary Magdalene must have held a very central position among the followers of Jesus as a disciple.

It is evident that during Christ’s life Mary was faithful in the work of the Lord. She was no different in Christ’s death. Uniquely among the followers of Christ, Mary is mentioned by name at three key events: Jesus' crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery of his tomb to be empty.

In John, we are given the moment that restored eternal hope to humanity through the eyes of Mary, the woman that was chosen to witness it.

And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

Mary, supposing Him to be the gardener, replied, “Sir, if thou hast borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.”

Then Jesus called her name, “Mary.”

Mary recognized His voice, and she turned again and cried with joy, “Rabboni,” which means “My beloved Master.”

Jesus said to her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and unto my God, and your God.”

And Mary Magdalene, with a heart full of joy, went and told the disciples the wonderful news that she had seen the Lord and that He lived and had spoken unto her!

Our Savior could have appeared to anyone. He could have had the first tidings of his resurrection announced by Apostle or King or Priest. But he chose a woman.

Sisters, we are here to be disciples and witnesses of our Lord and Savior. We are tasked with drawing close to Christ and then running forth and bearing the good news of his resurrection. I know that Mary wished she could have run to every soul that needed to hear that message. Luckily, she didn’t have to, her sisters will continue her work.

Sisters. The word that connects us through centuries. These great women were bound together by the same sisterhood that binds you and I. Mary could not have done her work without Eve’s first step into the wilderness. Mary Magdalene could not have proclaimed the everlasting truth of salvation if that sweet 14 year old had declined the Angel Gabriel’s wondrous message. Eve would have found it so much more difficult to leave paradise for pain if she hadn’t been certain that her sister’s would continue the work she so courageously started.

What work have you embarked on that will lift another to action, to calling, to fulfillment? What woman will be raised to her foreordained role because you embraced your own? A sister, a friend, a woman that lives after your name has been forgotten?

Sisters, you were created for a great and specific work and you were born worthy of it. Leave behind the uncertainty, self-doubt and the misgivings of a world that has no idea how truly noble you are.Our Lord loves you as fiercely as he has loved any of his creations.  The words the Angel Gabriel gave to Mary are yours as much as they are hers.

Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

Now live as if you believe it, as if you mean it, as if the fate of womanhood depends on it.

It is the least we can do for the women that came before us, it is the most we can do for the women that come after us.