Wounding, Healing and Transformation
Suffering & the Feminine
Rev. Tom Martinez
March 22, 2015
Lent IV 2015
Ancient Text: Luke 7:36-50
Film Text: The Piano, directed by Jane Campion (1993)
Since we’re exploring suffering and the Feminine today it feels appropriate to follow the lead of the great German poet Rilke, who was so deeply in touch with the Feminine dimension of existence, both as an artist and simply as a human being. I bring up Rilke in the spirit of “living the questions,” which is what he encouraged a young poet to do. So in relation to today’s sermon and in the spirit of Rilke I have three questions for your consideration:
How has my inner Feminine been wounded?
Where have I encountered healing for my inner Feminine?
What might my own personal transformation look like?
We can also pose these questions broadly to our society writ large:
How has the Feminine been wounded during the history of Western Civilization?
What have been our sources of healing the wounded Feminine?
And what does the transformation—we might add liberation—of the Feminine
look like as we look out onto the still mostly blank canvas of the 21st century?
Our Gospel reading today tells the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume onto Jesus feet. This might strike you as a bit of an odd passage with which to explore the suffering of the Feminine. At first glance we see a “sinful” woman making a bit of a scene, pouring such costly perfume onto Jesus’ feet that—as one of the disciples points out—it could have fed several hungry people. What’s more she actually uses her hair to soak up the mess, causing a religious leader looking on to surmise that Jesus is certainly no prophet since, if he were, he would surely know the kind of woman who was touching him. Add to all this that because the woman is described differently in different Gospels there’s an ever-growing mountain of theological speculation re her identity and how best to resolve the inconsistencies.
Of course another way of viewing the passage is to see this woman’s actions as a profoundly embodied expression of love from a place of radical humility and vulnerability. Jesus’ response in all
of the Gospels affirms the woman’s actions and thereby seems to transcend the overly rational squabbling of—mostly male—theologians. We might take this as yet another example of Jesus’ radically inclusive ethic of love that is continually pushing at the artificially oppressive boundaries supporting the dominant paradigm and its oppressive scaffolding.
People are fond of saying religion is irrelevant to modern life. And yet with women still earning a fraction of what men do, the ever-flowing river of “human trafficking,” the shocking incidence of rape and domestic abuse, not to mention the repercussions of our abuse of the natural world and the diminishment of the creative arts (all part of the Feminine as I am framing it this morning), it would seem this radically subversive receptivity to the Feminine is as relevant now as it was in Jesus’ day.
I personally know of no better way into this subject then through the medieval myth of the Handless Maiden (though the story of Bluebeard, is a close second). The Jungian analyst Robert Johnson uses the myth of the Handless Maiden as the prototypical mythic account of the wounding of our collective feeling function, which is another way of talking about the wounding of the Feminine. In the myth (which Johnson summarizes in his beautiful little book, The Fisher King & The Handless Maiden) a miller is approached by the Devil, who offers to increase the productivity of the mill for a price. The fee has something to do with what’s behind the mill and the miller assumes the Devil is referring to an old, ‘worthless’ tree, something he can easily do without. So in classic mythic fashion he makes the dreaded deal with the Devil.
The Devil goes to work with his mechanized know-how, hooking up the mill to a waterwheel that does indeed increase the mill’s productivity. But when it’s time to pay, the miller’s daughter steps out from behind the tree—that is the price the miller must pay.
Johnson interprets this broadly as representing the cost of our modern, mechanized way of life, an increase in productivity through technical know how that transgresses against the rhythms and pace of the natural world, a transgression against the Feminine. Consider the ‘advance’ of civilization, both the Scientific and Industrial revolutions, neither of which have been kind to the Feminine. But it plays out on a more personal level as well. Johnson notes, “this bargain is made many times a day by
modern people. We buy a practical advance at the cost of a feeling value every time we give up our trip to the gym, or [a] weekend camping, or agree to more commuting on the freeway, in exchange for some practical goal. This is the miller’s bargain, and it is legion. It is so deeply ingrained in our mentality that we fail to see it as a devil’s bargain in its modern form” (p 59).
When the miller turns his daughter over to the devil the devil chops off her hands, symbolizing a profound loss of agency. For a time the Handless Maiden is cared for by her family, but eventually she ventures into the forest on a solitary journey in search of healing. This is mythological language for the inner journey open to us all. By opening to our wounds and the healing depths of the unconscious, we move beyond the constrained and hobbling worldview of the dominant paradigm.
When the Handless Maiden ventures forth on her healing journey, she wanders into a royal garden, where she happens upon a pear tree ripe with pears. This is a symbol for the inner spiritual nourishment in the depths of the soul. Each day she walks to the pear tree and, having no hands, eats a pear directly off the tree. Eventually the King’s gardener notices the missing pears and he and the King hide and watch in waiting, only to discover the Handless Maiden. The King is enthralled with this unusual woman and makes her his Queen, having his artisans craft the finest silver hands anyone had ever seen. This empowers the Maiden to a degree, but of course at the same time it places her in subservience to the King. Deep down she is still wounded and in need of healing transformation. Johnson says this “silver-handedness” is a mythological expression of a life of luxury still rooted in patriarchal sources of power.
But the myth doesn’t leave the Queen there. Eventually she leaves the King’s palace and once again journeys into the forest, this time carrying her baby boy. While in the forest the baby falls into a river, prompting her to instinctively plunge her hands into the water to rescue him. When she pulls him from the river she finds her hands have been miraculously restored.
It’s worth noting that the two major instances of healing contained in the myth come about when the Maiden journeys into the forest on her own. This symbolizes liberation from the oppressive social order, while at the same time highlighting the healing aspects of the inner journey and the natural world.
The suffering of the Feminine is a painful reality to behold. This is true whether we are referring to the medieval myth of the Handless Maiden or a more modern tale like the powerful, Academy Award-winning film, The Piano, which tells the story of a widowed concert pianist purchased by her husband to be, an entrepreneurial frontiersman living in New Zealand. The film came out in 1993 and is directed by Jane Campion. Like the myth of the Handless Maiden, it’s a powerful critique of the damage modern society inflicts on the Feminine, drawing on both the despoliation of nature and the long history of patriarchal misogyny.
The film opens with Ada and her daughter being rowed to shore by a group of sailors eager to dispatch their cargo. The receiving party is nowhere to be found so Ada and her daughter are left on the beach, appearing so small and inconsequential against a backdrop the surging sea. One gets the impression Ada has washed up on the beach from the storm of life and the storyline bears this out. We later learn the tragic details of her first husband’s death through her daughter, who tells an inquiring busy-body that her mother and father were singing in a forest and became so entranced by the music that they failed to take heed of a thunderstorm—at which point her father was struck dead by lightning. Ada was struck dumb from that moment on and communicates with sign language and by writing on a little pad of paper she wears around her neck, a constant reminder of her wound.
From the film’s opening scenes it’s clear that her new husband-owner is incapable of appreciating any of these tragic details. He sees Ada much as he sees the land he has purchased from the indigenous peoples: as an object to be exploited.
Enter Baines (played by Harvey Keitel), who has learned from the indigenous Maori and to a significant degree merged his lifestyle with theirs. Sensing the depth of Ada’s feeling for her piano (which her husband abandoned on the beach), Baines purchases it and then arranges for Ada to give him “lessons.” This thinly veiled scheme is quickly to be an excuse for him to ‘spend time’ with Ada. When she recoils over the implications of the deal Baines (much like Satan in the myth of the Handless Maiden) tempts her with the promise of buying pack her piano. Every visit will count as one key, he suggests. Ada, more mature at this stage in her life, counters that she’ll agree if they only count the black keys. Baines feigns refusal but then buckles when Ada in turn feigns to leave. In the end Ada’s deep-seated need for music in her life trumps everything else and she agrees.
At first the “relationship” smacks of exploitation, as Baines presses for more and more sexualized contact. But eventually he realizes this will never lead to a genuine relationship with Ada. Surprising her, he announces he’s returning the piano. But this only intensifies the feelings she was developing for him.
The escalation of tension that culminates in a horribly violent scene is foreshadowed by a drama within the drama. The Villagers have staged a play based on the story of Bluebeard, the fabled nobleman whose six previous wives have mysteriously disappeared prior to his courtship of his seventh. As the play is acted out within this little village on the New Zealand frontier, the native Maori in the audience, unlike their European counterparts, are unable to engage in the necessary “willing suspension of disbelief.” While Bluebeard hacks away at his victim the Maori rush the stage and interrupt the play. While some no doubt toss this off as the ‘uncivilized savages’ failing to appreciate that they’re watching a theatrical performance, the deeper message concerns the extent to which the “civilized” world has turned a blind eye to institutionalized misogyny. Here again, then, the indigenous people are associated with both higher consciousness (and later, with healing and liberation).
Eventually Ada’s husband learns of Ada’s affair with Baines and responds (much like the Devil in the myth of the Handless Maiden) by placing her hand on the chopping block and cutting off one of her fingers. A powerful scene follows this horrific wounding. Ada is half-asleep with her hand bandaged and her husband, gazing at her, becomes aroused—presumably by her abject vulnerability. But as he prepares to penetrate her she opens her eyes. Her husband, seen now by Ada and suddenly self-consciousness, desists in shame, marking the end of his pathetic attempts to exploit her.
In the aftermath of this second profound wounding (the first being the death of her first husband), Ada sets out on a second journey across the ocean (a mythic parallel to the journey into the forest). This time Maori men and women paddle the canoe, a hint that she is no longer powered by the artificial world of social domination.
At this point something surprising happens. Ada’s piano is precariously situated in the small craft. Ada instructs Baines to throw it overboard, presumably to lessen the risk of capsizing, though given all that it has come to symbolize the request is laden with additional meaning. What might this mean? Perhaps Ada has come into her own power to such a degree that she is no longer dependent on the piano as she once was. Surely music will be an integral part of her life throughout her life, but she is non-attached to this particular instrument. We could also see it as a sign that she is healing from the wounding it is so closely associated with. At first Baines refuses but when Ada insists he obliges, pushing the piano overboard. Only the rope tied to the piano wraps around Ada’s leg and pulls her down with it into the depths of the ocean.
This is the film’s most iconic scene. There is a terrible moment of radical uncertainty concerning whether she will live or die, a moment in which she herself is resigned to either fate. Then, just when it seems she has breathed her last, she kicks at the rope and breaks free. In a voiceover she says she surprised herself by choosing life. Her subsequent transformation is hinted at in the closing scenes of the film in which she is learning to speak again, an apt symbol for the resurrection that awaits us all when we truly find our voice.
It feels worth noting that the very last scenes of the film are of the piano on the ocean floor. Ada’s character says (again through a voiceover) that she sometimes thinks of the piano in its ocean grave, pondering the incredible silence of the deep. When she imagines it this way she says, she sometimes sees herself still suspended above it, as if the whole experience were somehow still taking place, that profound struggle of life against death that wars within us all throughout our lives. But what strikes her as most salient about these late-night visions is the profound silence of the deep. I take this to be a final reminder that we carry this deep silence within us always, despite whatever storms are raging on the surface of our worlds.
May it Be. Amen.