One sunny afternoon in August 2015, 19 women descended upon a campsite in the Yosemite National Forest for the three-day Sweet Water Women’s Retreat. Many of them did not know one another but were beckoned, as was this reporter, by the promise of a weekend of powerful community building and spiritual transformation.
“There’s something sacred that happens when women feel safe to be themselves and to be with each other,” said Andrea Penagos, a Los Angeles-based acupuncturist and organizer of the Sweet Water Women’s Retreat.
Penagos and her partner, artist Dalila Mendez, designed a creative and nondenominational experience for women seeking spiritual communion with nature in a non-male-dominated environment.
To begin the weekend of ceremony, the women processed from the campground down to the rocky banks of the Merced River and made offerings of herbs and honey to the Yoruba goddess, Oshun. They made quiet intentions to themselves and consecrated what would be a sacred and nurturing space for the duration of the weekend.
“If we compare the lives of women and where we are in terms of nature on this planet, we see that the oppression of women goes hand in hand with the oppression of nature,” Penagos told The Huffington Post.
Signs of that "oppression" were present where the river's water ran low and left smooth rocks exposed -- the result of California's ongoing drought. But in other areas the water was deep enough to swim in, which many of the women did throughout the weekend.
“The way that I relate divine feminine to spirit is through the Mother Earth who has given birth to all of us and to everything on this planet -- human, animal, plant, mineral, everything,” Penagos said
Penagos' relationship with spirituality is an embodied practice. Her home is filled with sacred stones and altars. She works with her hands to bring healing to her clients through acupuncture and herbal medicine.
An important aspect of women-centered spirituality is learning to feel connected to a higher power within the female body, said Arisika Razak, a professor of women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Women are taught to devalue their bodies in overt and covert ways, which can impede their ability to see the divine within themselves, Razak told HuffPost.
“If God is always imaged as male it reifies the idea that the woman’s body is not holy, is not divine,” said Razak, who worked closely with women’s bodies as a nurse midwife for years before becoming a professor.
Razak noted that many historical and contemporary cultures have female images of divinity -- from powerful goddesses in Greek myth to sacred grandmothers in African diaspora traditions. There have also been women throughout time who have challenged societal norms and disrupted power structures. Women today have that legacy to draw from as they form spiritual communities with one another, Razak said.
“No matter what the rules were, in every culture, in every time there were always women who did what women were not supposed to do, who broke ground, who changed things,” she told HuffPost.
The very act of women forming spiritual communities with one another can be radical, especially when we consider the precedent set in history. For centuries women were restricted from studying sacred texts. Fear of women's spirituality was so great that it fueled much of the European and North American witch hunts that left at least tens of thousands dead.
To this day, women are frequently excluded from religious spaces. Catholic and Mormon women seeking ordination are threatened and rejected by their churches. Some Muslim women are relegated to prayer areas behind screens where they are unable to see the imam. Jewish women are prohibited from reading from a full-sized Torah by Orthodox Jewish authorities at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Penagos first experienced the radical potential of women’s spaces in college when she joined a women’s student group centered around creativity and skill sharing.
“It was so profound that women would choose to get together in a women-only environment to support themselves in the deconstruction of the patriarchy that told them that they need to be silent, that their presence was only validated in the presence of a man and that their creative gifts were not important on this planet,” Penagos said.
That experience still informs the groups she participates in and the circles she organizes, which strive to be inclusive of transgender and genderqueer identities as well, Penagos said.
"If God is always imaged as male it reifies the idea that the woman’s body is not holy, is not divine."
The power of women’s communities is something Sheryl Olitzky, founder and executive director of interfaith group Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, has seen time and time again.
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom brings Muslims and Jewish women together for dialogue and community building in local chapters and annual conferences. Many of the women, Olitzky said, have felt seen and heard in new ways through their participation in the group. Some of the Muslim women from more gender-segregated backgrounds find the experience to be particularly eye-opening.
"Women who hadn't always had their own voice or independence during any faith services -- having to pray away from the men, going through a separate door -- when given the chance to observe Jewish women in a liberal setting, they get very excited," she told HuffPost.
As the women hear one another’s stories, Olitzsky said, they start to understand and appreciate the differences between their often-polarized religions. They learn about each other’s holidays and prayer practices. They learn to celebrate together and be vulnerable with others.
“We create a safe environment for women to speak that’s not in a synagogue, not in a mosque but in someone’s home,” Olitzsky said. "It's very sisterly."
As a result, she added, the relationships that form among the women of Sisterhood “are stronger and more emotional than your typical friendship.”
I witnessed much the same during the Sweet Water retreat and saw that a community had been formed by the end of the weekend. Many of the women still communicate daily via a private Facebook group.
The retreat left me with memories of campfire songs, meditations and uninhibited dips in the river. It left me with new friends, mindfulness practices and a renewed reverence for nature. The "magic" that happens when women organize and participate in spiritual communities is something that begins within each of us -- but it takes a village to recognize that divine spark and help it shine.
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