“She changes everything she touches” is the chant Lee Sullivan invokes around the altar. And she has been doing precisely that by stirring local interest in the Goddess since she arrived in Stamford two years ago. In her basement, dubbed the “birthing room”, Lee is acting as midwife to growing numbers of women of all ages in the area who desire greater connection with the Goddess.
This Fall, Lee’s teachings are emerging from the “birthing room” to the secular community, through an evolutionary course offered by Greenwich Continuing Education: Why Women Need the Goddess.
“What Lee has to offer has not been done on the secular level,” said the Director, Janice Calkin. The catalogue offers individual courses on body, mind and spirit; yet, only the combination of ritual, creativity and knowledge in Lee’s teachings serve to incorporate the three into a integrated whole.
“Within recent decades, archeological findings have born abundant witness to the widespread existence of pre-historic goddess cultures,” said Lee in an interview from the “birthing room” where she was surrounded by images of female divinity. “These findings that suggest a time when women were co-creators of culture, have inspired a wealth of contemporary feminist scholarship. Theological, spiritual and sociological in essence, this work encourages reflection on how women’s lives, our religious expressions, our relationships, our self-esteem, our attitudes towards power and our own bodies would be different today if the divine is perceived as feminine. My desire is to help women, myself included, live more authentic lives than we have been allowed to live in a patriarchal culture.”
Those who ventured behind the Red Door of the Stamford Unitarian Universalist Church on the morning of the Summer Solstice would have passed under the flags of the world religions and through a cloud of incense to engage in a purification rite. They would have witnessed the lighting of the chalice and evocation of the four directions by four priestesses in flowing robes. The service from the pulpit was an eclectic spiritual smorgasbord: Native American readings, a guided “vision quest” meditation and a homily on planetary awareness. “If we do not heal our relations with the earth, we face the prospect of extinction,” Lee said before lighting a candle marking the two year anniversary of the amendment to the Unitarian Universalist Association charter acknowledging religious traditions celebrating “the sacred circle of life”. By the time the chalice was extinguished, participants would have experienced the principles of earth centered spirituality: immanence, interconnection and unity. “It has been there all the time but they haven’t had the opportunity to discover it in themselves because these kind of opportunities (for uncovering and remembering) haven’t existed,” said Ms. Calkin, who was so intrigued by Lee’s story that she immediately invited her to teach after meeting her socially earlier this year.
The holy days of the earth religions mark the changes of the seasons. The Summer Solstice — the longest day of the year — symbolizes a culmination of the return of the light invoked at the Winter Solstice. When day and night are in balance at the Equinoxes, the Goddess crosses the critical passageway between light and darkness on her journey from (Spring) and to (Fall) the Underworld.
Lee’s balance has been achieved by exploring a call to earth centered spirituality which came only after the careful building of a career in the ministry on conventional theological foundations. For six years in the ministry, she attempted to be inclusive of women in her sermons, struggling with language all the while. In 1989, while giving a sermon at a Presbyterian church, she announced a song by suggesting that the congregation substitute the female gender in the refrain: Praise her. One of the men in the choir walked out. Another man was so irate that he took it upon himself to poll the rest of the congregation in seeking a unanimity of response that agreed with his own.
Despite all her enthusiasm and bounty of her offerings, Lee was chagrined to discover the truth: the church literally couldn’t afford to lose her — she was earning a third of the salary of a male minister. The discovery gave her an ironic sense of power. “Men who were used to being in power went along with it because they couldn’t afford anyone else.”
Despite marginal support from certain women, the high attendance in her weekly teaching and a belief that she succeeded in changing minds, there was a feeling within Lee that she was repeating a life pattern of being too conformist: “All my life I was been obedient and had done what I had been taught.”
Not anymore. The decision to leave marked the beginning of her true search. Lee wasn’t sure of the way but knew it meant following her heart. A course at offered by the Guild for Spiritual Guidance at Wainwright House guided her to mystics such as Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhardt, who referred to the divine in the feminine. She also gained an understanding, through the teachings of Carl Jung, of how patriarchal archetypes have trapped women into confining roles.
Nevertheless, while the course greatly expanded Lee’s consciousness, she felt something was lacking. “It was intended to prepare us for becoming spiritual guides,” she said, “yet the approach was strictly intellectual. The masculine way of learning — theory. Not through experience.”
She was influenced by the well known geologist and theologian, Thomas Berry, who called for a need to restore the feminine to a place of honor in the Church. According to Berry, the emphasis on the masculine brought about dominance and control while the feminine calls for the need to care for the earth.
These many threads created a yearning in Lee. She came to believe that “the way we have been trained to think of God in the masculine is not helpful to women.” Her prevailing thought at the time was that women need to claim the feminine divine. She agreed with Mary Daly: “when the God is male, the male is god.” The terminology of theology substantiated patriarch dominance.
As Lee had one teacher after another appearing syncronistically to influence her thoughts, she was growing more estranged from what she knew, chiefly the male image of divinity. “It’s very subtle,” she said. “Any art depicted god as man. The majority…refer to god as he. They never come out and say that God is actually male but it is always implied.”
Despite the stimulation of her new course of study, something was missing. A lack of community. She began embarking on Goddess tours where she sharing her feelings of isolation with sympathetic women who told her about a life changing course offered by the Unitarian Church: Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.
After a purposeful search, Lee discovered a friendly congregation of Unitarians in Hastings, New York. She asked the minister if she could teach. He agreed, but only after a good deal of hesitation. “He was a new minister and was scared.”
She ended up teaching the course with another woman. “There were 15 women in the group. It was a wonderful experience.” Lee continued attending the church but the yearning for a place where she could offer study remained. She investigated Connecticut because she had been coming this way for a meditation group. Someone told her about the Unitarian Church in Westport. Meanwhile, she moved to Stamford with her husband.
“I needed to go where I was wanted,” she said about welcoming of the Stamford Unitarian Church. “It seemed like the Goddess was making it easy.” The trim and youthful minister, Stan Aronson, immediately asked her to teach.
Stan Aronson’s acknowledgment in the value of Lee as midwife to a new archetype — combining male and female — is born out by his willingness to work with goddess worshippers.
“The capturing of the Goddess is as valid as anything else in religion,” Aronson assured me, adding that he wants to work with Lee and others “who represent a responsible dimension of paganism.” He declared that those who are not responsible give pagan a bad name: “The word conjures up images of witches.” His interfaith clergy group, he says, “are very uncomfortable with the search for the goddess but they are comfortable with (the term) earth centered spirituality”. He added that he feels that his Christ centered colleagues would have their consciousness raised by Lee’s Solstice service.
“In honoring the Goddess within and discovering their strengths, women learn to value themselves and become more responsive partners,” concluded Aronson, effectively evoking why we all need the Goddess in our lives.
–Lisa Paul Streitfeld
This article was originally published in Fairfield County Weekly in September, 1997.