Chanting the Feminine Down: James C. McCullagh author and Roy McCullah Designer
Choosing the subject for a theology thesis takes research, patience and deciding on the topic that is your passion to want to learn about and discover its hidden secrets. Colette McGovern is a female Christian theology student that has difficulty coming to terms with her choice, the complex subject she decided to undertake being the Council of Trent and the impact it has historically.
She has many talks with her mother about her thesis, the poem that is the title of this novel and her feelings about her spirituality. Talking with her mother at the start of the novel is quite revealing about their different points of view about the church and when she reveals her dreams about the Pope it leads to many different viewpoints on both sides. Her mother lets her know that her church is closing and Colette was to take a stand and put something on the door of the church bringing attention and hopefully the press. Her mother is a devout Catholic who’s is more interested in ecclesiastical Latin and no long attends weekly mass. Colette which, I found quite compelling had an emotionally challenging dream about Pope Paul II who sinks mysteriously into the earth wearing, The focal point of the story is dealing with the feminine side of the Church and how women are often excluded but her first dream is of the Pope wearing soft robes that felt gentle and feminine as she talks about it with her campus counselor to get a handle on what it might mean. The thesis is based on her understanding of the Council of Trent, and Catholicism. Throughout the novel Colette will struggle with the issue of feminine life and the problem of sexism. “The Church seems to have spent the last two thousand years shoring up a male hierarchy. So much time was spent arguing over the Immaculate Conception and all the rest that seems like myth and nonsense to eternally define the female.” This quote seems to prevail quite bit among readers. Each vision or dream is so vividly depicted and illustrated with the colorful descriptions that you feel that you are experiencing them along with Colette. Her inclination to study the Council of Trent leads her to research more about Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1374 collection of Famous Women an anthology of biographies.
The author dramatically portrays the conflicts that Colette experiences throughout her visions, dreams and the struggles she encounters both spiritually, dealing with the death of her father and with something the church would frown upon her past abortion. Where does the church place women?
Colette dreams about different events in history as if they are affecting her mind and actions. Her thesis for class seems to be consuming her every waking hour with Colette drifting off into space at times and thinking that she is experiencing the events first hand even when awake. In classes or even at home she escapes reality. Her counselor and her thesis mentor listen to as she tells about her dreams, her journal and where she has been at times but as you hear her speaking you wonder if she can tell the difference between the real world and the ones she has visited in her mind. Her mother’s opinions and that of others she often relates makes her think she is losing her mind.
Meeting her mother, Patricia you wonder why Colette isn’t even more doubtful about her choices and her decisions in life. She is constantly critiquing her daughter and is overpowering plus her comments lead you to believe that she feels that her daughter’s decision-making skills are poor. Guilt is one thing that her mother makes her feel and her life as well as her visions that she shares overpower her abilities to think rationally and to complete her thesis. We hear her many interactions with her advisor, Jesuit priest, Reverend Gleason who seems to listen and he discusses her thesis subject and wonders if this topic is right for her cautioning Colette and asking her many questions as to why the Council of Trent. She is definitely in need of counseling and O’Connell provides that with some important points and insights but namely she explains her dreams and visions which often take her to the many time periods where she envisions Carl Jung whose writings seem to influence her as well as his doctrines and play an important role in how she creates her visions and dreams.
In chapter 18 she awakens from a dream in which an older man told her that whatever else happened or whatever was said, I will hold you in my heart. This seemed personal, heartfelt and ritualistic. But, next we find her on the way to Merkel’s class who was going back and forth with Luther Martin about being stuck at the railroad station at Trent but her mind wanders off again and she asks why does he think the available Trent documents say little about the Churches concern about he whole canvas and not just the images. But, first she reminds readers that the Trent view of images as in earlier councils seemed more political than psychological. She then states that Jung point out the lack of progress on this subject even before Trent. The rest of chapter 18 elaborates on the many viewpoints. She seems bent on learning about the council and fixated on feminism and sexuality as evident in her questions when she asks Merkel: “Did the Council of Trent give the Church cover to push against nudity and sexuality in general?” She did not recall much about this subject except the use of religious imagery. The professor offers examples of what she wanted to know throughout the chapter. Merkel is quite colorful and his manner of delivery unique and unorthodox making his presentations and responses to questions interesting and even quite thought provoking at times. At times you think he’s an actor on stage and uses these skills in his lessons.
Colette’s tumbleweed journal and her records tell the story her own way and in her own words. Her slant is that her dreams focus and her thesis including the feminine into the Catholic mass which goes against the doctrines of the Council of Trent. Colette might be intelligent but she is so bent on studying the Council of Trent she often loses sight or reality and escapes the real world while studying this specific topic and her dreams are so vividly depicted by the author you think you are living them along with her. Dreams, rituals and including the popes and other religious leaders, Colette takes on hearing her own voice hoping to ignite a spark in the church calling for feminine in the church services.
Colette seemed to enjoy going back in time and focusing on the feminine and hoping to bring it to the forefront in the present and in the church. Her imagination and images are vividly depicted and created by the author as she meets Italian writer Boccaccio the author of Famous women and it has been demeaned or thought to be the first feminist book. The dreams take their toll on her and she learns that there is a heavy price in many ways for traveling back in time and reliving these incidents. She reminds us at times that the poem Chanting the Feminine Down was tacked on the door or the church hoping that it would get them to notice the importance of what she was trying to say and do as she ventured on a one woman journey to find the feminine in what she feels is her religious tradition.
Colette seems to be trying to be accepted and each time the professor or the counselor brings up something from the past she regresses back and relives the entire incident or happening in her own way giving it the perspective she wants it to have and the outcome. If we flashback to the beginning of the novel and we see her at the alter feeling shunned by the priest and her face half black and half white it is almost like good vs. evil and she feels not accepted right from the start. The Catholic Church appears to be primarily male in domination and Colette wants to bring the feminine or more power to women and this seems to be her way of making everyone aware of this issue. The author brings this issue to light throughout the novel and her travels.
The final dreams described deal with her being a monk’s cells surrounded by a dozen or so monks and priests who administered to her, putting holy oil on her hands and feet and praying for her. The walls of the cell remind readers of the two sides of her face other walls were white and the shadows in every corned were demons who became a crone, a beauty, a cadaver and finally Blake’s Tiger who stood watch over her burning night dreams. She dreamed of badly bloodied Jesus on the cross. A god spoke to her telling the that a man in her presence was dead. What she claims with her screams makes you wonder if she will ever come out of the darkness and see the light. When she awakens the author lets us know the torment from her dreams and holding her belly for dear life. You wonder why and what she is holding on to or letting go.
Colette takes more journeys back in time and some most would question as to whether she fully comprehends what she’s exploring for her thesis and when she feels she is done read the final installment and learn the ending of her travels and the starting revelation that will explain it all.