Author Kristen Wolf is an accessible academic, weaving complex and overarching themes of magic, divinity and feminist theory into a familiar tale.
While many readers may find themselves developing or newly exploring their feelings on the divine feminine, “The Way” represents a solid but never-ending exploration of it. Readers finding the broader topic typically bulky or nebulous will find a solid yet open foundation in the story of Anna, a young girl dealing with the lifelong results of personal tragedy and patriarchy in biblical times.
Through the book, Anna realizes and accepts aspects of her skills, talents, appearance and beliefs. Along with the protagonist, the reader realizes that the soft hand of a healer can bring positive change in a community-along with leadership and respect. She becomes a gently outspoken and familiar spiritual healer and leader.
This book club favorite and Oprah pick appeals to any open-minded woman. Specifically, fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Witch of Portobello” will find familiarity in the books themes, though anyone with interest in the exploration of women’s roles will appreciate this well-crafted novel.
Wolf discusses how her own life events have inspired the novel, the importance of having a phenomenal editor and potential criticism of a novel rejecting the more dominating virtues of patriarchy.
Tara M. Clapper: Does this book mirror a personal journey for you? If so, how?
Kristen Wolf: To some extent, yes, the story does mirror a personal journey. Its roots are deep and stretch all the way back to my childhood. As a youngster, I was raised in the Christian tradition. I was an eager and ready participant and loved learning about the great and powerful mysteries I could feel all around, and abov e, me. And I loved the drama and sensuality of my faith and our celebrations. Yet as time went on, I began to feel a definite sense of being somehow excluded from the whole enterprise. After all, church leaders could only be male, our God was male, and the main player was the Father’s only son.Was there no place for me in all this?I remember wondering.
So one day, at age six, I did something to remedy the situation: I carried my desk into the driveway, covered it with a white sheet, adorned the front with a red felt cross and, upon this makeshift altar, held “church” for a gathering of neighborhood children.
My impersonation of a priest caused quite a stir, as you can imagine. Yet, however amusing, this story demonstrates more than anything my powerful longing to carve a place for myself in the world of spirituality.
But guess what? It didn’t work. Life went back to the status quo.
As the years passed, and I grew into young adulthood, I became more and more bothered by what felt like a “boys club” to which I could not be admitted. And I vividly remember thinking it wrong that the people who seemed to most innately embody the ideals that Jesus upheld — forgiveness, compassion, cooperation, nonviolence, respect for life — were not being included, nor honored, in our endeavors.
(The same disparity holds true today. Survey any of our major religions and you’ll find half of the world’s population excluded from its imagery and leadership.)
For years, I just went along with the program. But when I entered college, my youthful discontent would mix with a variety of influences, including studies into the latest scholarship that had uncovered efforts throughout history to remove the feminine from the spiritual domain. These studies were eye opening for me. A kind of “the emperor has no clothes!” moment.
Having felt first-hand the negative effects of living under a religion that sets the male higher than the female, I decided to try and instigate change.
“The Way,” then, is my adult version of holding church in the driveway. It’s my second attempt at offering up a tangible vision of spirituality that is more balanced and inclusive. One that includes and honors the true value of women and girls, in its imagery, leadership, and practice. And one where we might dare to imagine the possibility that a great spiritual leader could be a woman.
I’m hopeful that someday the possibility of this new spiritual world will arise — it’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book. And while it’s too late for the little girl in the driveway, it’s not too late for my child. Or for the children yet to come.
TMC: What did you learn about yourself by writing this book?
KW: I learned that I could sit still for a really, really long time!
Okay, seriously, while that is true, I also learned that I was harboring a deep yearning to express my beliefs about spirituality in a way that was clear and in which others could share. Having been raised in a religious tradition that discouraged the asking of critical questions, I think I felt subconsciously hesitant to discuss where its dogma and mythology had failed me. However, since the book’s publication, so many people have responded in a positive way that I’ve been rewarded for speaking out. Fortunately, this will only encourage me to do more of it!
One other significant thing I learned was to trust my imagination. There were many days when I set off writing having no idea where I would wind up. I particularly remember being really worried because I didn’t know how I was going to handle the matter of the crucifixion. I hadn’t yet concocted an answer. And the whole plot rested on it! At some point I remember just surrendering. And choosing to believe that the answer would come. Fortunately it did! But I can honestly say it wasn’t me that figured it out. It literally dropped into my head. It was a gift. And I’ve since learned to trust in the source of those gifts. And to gratefully receive. (That doesn’t mean I don’t have moments of panic, they’re just a lot shorter now…)
TMC: What people or organizations have given you the most support and the most criticism about the subject matter in “The Way?”
KW: I’ve been fortunate in that the book has received some great reviews from literary critics. For me, as a writer, their praise has been very rewarding. But I’d have to say that the most ardent supporters have been the book clubs! Since the book’s publication, I’ve joined quite a few groups around the country via speakerphone. They’re mostly made up of open-minded and progressive women, however their ranks are diverse both spiritually and vocationally — including full-time moms (and grandmoms!), CEOs, teachers, therapists, lawyers, even politicians. Without exception, I’ve come away from each conversation feeling invigorated and inspired.
What’s most fascinating is that while we talk about the book at the beginning, doing so inevitably sparks people to share their own experiences and thoughts around religion and spirituality. This part of the discussion is always unique, intimate, and powerful. Spirituality is a core issue in our lives. People have questions, confusions, concerns, and revelations they yearn to share. And it’s amazing to me how many people have felt cut off or excluded from their religious or spiritual life. Despite these feelings, they also have hopes that things will change. That a more inclusive spirituality will arise to help bring greater peace and prosperity to our planet.
A lot of people wind up talking about their children, and what they hope for them in the future. The conversations often end with either tears of joy or rousing cheers! I think the book serves as a catalyst for people to express their fears, but to also unite in their communal hopes. And that’s a pretty powerful event to witness.
As far as criticism, there has actually been far less than I expected. And strangely, the readers who have expressed the greatest disapproval have been those who haven’t read the book! They often write negative reviews saying they won’t entertain the book on the ground that it’s blasphemous. While I understand that this book isn’t for everyone, I would really invite people to experience the book before they criticize it. The story is not what most people think. And I’ve lots of emails from people who didn’t want to read it, but found that it dusted off their thinking and opened their minds to new and hopeful possibilities.
If, however, a person considers the very idea that a woman could serve as a great spiritual leader to be blasphemous, then we will have to agree to disagree. But on the other hand, if they support the principles of forgiveness, non-violence, compassion, inclusion, and a respect and reverence for life, then this is a story for them!
TMC: Anna learns to heal using ancient knowledge. What do you think modern medicine could learn from ancient practices and how could they be integrated?
KW: Something people may find surprising is that I’m a huge science buff. Science and scientific pursuit – in all fields — is my secret love. Not only because of the amazing discoveries, but also because scientists approach their subjects with awe and deep attentiveness in much the same way the Sisters practice Communion. Of course there are exceptions, but in my experience, science is a very spiritual pursuit. And I agree with Teilhard de Chardin, the mystic/scientist, who said that he’d come to find little difference between research and worship – in other words, both pursuits unfold according to a practice of respectful observation, reverence, and a sense of awe at the wonder of it all.
From what I’ve read, many scientists have already begun to explore the wealth of knowledge held by indigenous healers in different cultures. The scientific community has discovered that the wisdom and knowledge such healers possess is invaluable because, like that of The Sisters, it is a legacy of deep attentiveness to the living world over hundreds of years. This practice of profound attentiveness is a practice, a ritual that’s been lost to most of our cultures. And one we might not see arise again for some time. So it seems wise to learn all we can from those who have patiently culled nature’s secrets, in the hope that we can improve the condition of living things on earth.
It would also seem wise for modern medicine to re-cultivate the skill and practice of deep attention and listening, in that full body kind of way, using all the senses. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being at the doctor’s and feeling rushed through the appointment. Nothing feels worse, does it? In fact, I’d be willing to bet that many of our afflictions [are] aggravated, if not caused, by feeling unheard and unseen. What the Sisters taught was that each person holds a deep knowingness inside them that can be activated by observing in a present and attentive way. If people in the healing professions practiced this more intensive way of being present with their patients, it might go a long way toward enhancing the process of healing.
TMC: You thanked your developmental editor in the book. From an author’s perspective, how did a good editor help your book become more successful?
KW: You’ve put the answer in your question — in the word “perspective.” When you’ve been working on something for months, even years, and watching a story unfold day in and day out, the world becomes very much alive inside you in a way that it may or may not be on the page. The gift of a talented editor is that she can hold your perspective of your story up against that of a first-time reader and show you where you might not have given them enough information. Or where you gave too much. Or where you’re forcing a situation or a character, rather than letting them evolve organically.
A gifted editor is invaluable to a writer in that at some point it becomes impossible to have enough distance from your work to be objective. I worked with both professional and informal editors (such as well-read friends) and gained much needed insight and inspiration from them all. Sometimes an editor need only ask a few questions to get you to see your work through fresh eyes. And this shift in perspective can make the difference.
TMC: How did you conduct research for this book? How much of your research was historical in nature? Was there a lack of information in some areas? If so, how did you work around it?
KW: In some ways I feel like I’ve been researching this book my whole life. The questions I had as a child regarding my own faith and my own sense of spirituality eventually blended with many other things: my own adult life experiences, college studies with Jesuits, independent study of prehistoric cultures, mythology, ancient and modern spiritual traditions, and the leading-edge scholarship that had uncovered efforts throughout history to remove the feminine from the spiritual domain. This helped me formulate and focus the intentions for the book.
I also read extensively about everyday life in biblical times — how livestock was managed, food prepared, clothing made and worn — all the details that helped me shape the characters and lend to them an authenticity.
To that I added a trip to see the Dead Sea Scrolls during their only scheduled US appearance in 2003 at the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The exhibition included fragments of twelve different scrolls, including fragments from the books of Exodus and Psalms. There were also numerous artifacts from Qumran, the ancient settlement located near the caves where the scrolls were discovered. Artifacts included ancient coins, leather sandals, a scroll storage jar, and a pottery inkwell. These items infused me with a rich sense of time and place. I spent hours viewing the exhibit in detail and taking copious notes. I think this experience, in particular, fired my imagination like no other.
After that, I gave some thought to traveling to the Middle East to get an even more realistic sense of place, but in the end I’m glad I didn’t. Not having specific and searing details in my brain left my imagination more free to create places and people. After all, neither The Narrows, nor The Sisters were real, so in order to bring them to life, I had to rely on my imagination, and a good dose of inspiration. The same goes for the life that Jesus pursued from age twelve to thirty – the Missing Years, as they’re known. This was where I really had to extrapolate from my research, and bend my imagination toward the journey I wanted to give the reader. Fortunately, these gaps actually worked in my favor and gave me enormous creative freedom.
TMC: Why is the divine feminine still taboo today? How is it connected with the message of acceptance exemplified by Jesus and represented in the Bible and in your text?
KW: I think the divine feminine is still taboo because humanity has not yet outgrown its love affair with the values upheld by a patriarchal system, namely: domination, destruction, intimidation, hierarchical control, exclusion, and oppression.
Historically, it’s as if humankind switched from a more egalitarian, spiritual, inclusive way of life to its complete opposite. If we think of the collective human spirit as a pendulum that’s most balanced in the center, ours has swung very far in one direction. And who knows? Maybe this is normal. Maybe this is how we learn the true pain and harm caused by a system that’s out of balance, that honors destruction over creation, death over life, control over equality.
I do think the pendulum is swinging back, though. The momentum of change is undeniable. As Meryl Streep said at this year’s Women in the World Summit, “I feel like I’ve been plugged into an energy source: it’s bigger than oil, coal — it’s girls!” And I couldn’t agree more!
For me, Jesus is a powerful embodiment of the ideal that we’re moving toward. That being one of equality, reverence for life, forgiveness, inclusion, and non-violence. But it’s good to remember also that Jesus himself was speaking out against the dominant patriarchal system of his time. And so his message of equality, peace, and mercy was viewed as a threat! This made him a true revolutionary. Just as people working for change today – both men and women — are true revolutionaries.
TMC: What can women do in their busy lives to connect with the bigger picture and their intuition? Would you consider writing a guide on this topic–like Coelho’s “Warrior of the Light”–for women?
KW: I think a good place to start is simply to acknowledge that right now it’s really hard to stay connected. For anyone. Time is moving faster. There are infinitely more distractions. And we spend most of our time indoors, rather than in the natural world. This circumstance is particularly hard on women, I think, because we are so viscerally connected to nature and its cycles and seasons.
However, it’s good to remember that “The Way” also takes place during a time when a woman’s relationship to the natural world was being intentionally severed. Because of this, I think we can gather some lessons from Anna’s quest for connection and self-empowerment that we can integrate into our own lives to help us gain deeper personal roots and purpose. Two of the key practices Anna drew upon were:
1) Contemplating the eternal every day. Even if it’s only for a moment or two, try contemplating something that isn’t from the world of man-made objects. Something that is eternal. The thing itself doesn’t have to be grand or exotic. What matters is the depth of your attention. Anna drew incredible inspiration from a single blade of grass. You might do the same from a houseplant. Maybe a bird outside. Your own hand. Or how about opening your fridge? Any fruit or vegetable will do! Contemplate how its life began. From where it draws its energy. How it is vulnerable or strong. While the practice may seem odd at first, over time, you will come to crave these moments spent reflecting on the aspects of life that endure. As with Anna, it serves to ground us in a power far greater than ourselves, and from which we arise.
2) Remembering who you are, no matter who you must become. All of us lead double lives. In one life, we are powerful beings, imbued with the ability to create and nurture life. In the other, we are bank tellers, teachers, high-powered business executives, on-the-go moms, devoted partners, etc. The demands of our second (and third and fourth and fifth) identities often overshadow the intrinsic magic of the first. As Anna grew older, she trained herself to pause at moments throughout her day to remember her inherent self, to honor her abilities as a woman, and to draw a sense of strength from these reminders. Given all we do in a day, it’s easy to be forgetful of our true selves. Sometimes we even have to remember to remember who we truly are!
These are two pretty powerful practices that I’ve come to use in my own life. I find that they help me a lot, particularly in tough times, and they’ve become so ingrained that I can really practice them anywhere, without a lot of formality — which helps me stay consistent with them!
And yes, I would absolutely think about writing a guide to help women feel and stay connected. If I could lend anything to the conversation, I wouldn’t hesitate. Women need all the spiritual support we can get, especially from each other. And I would be happy to contribute to that effort!
TMC: If a woman is interested in exploring the themes of the book further after reading it, where should she turn?
KW: That’s a great question and one I’ve been asked a lot. To start, I’ve listed a number of books on my website. Most of these books are ones I used for research, but to which I also return to from time to time to refresh my memory and my thinking. Most of the titles are non-fiction but are very well-written and easy to read. I credit titles such as Elaine Pagel’s “The Gnostic Gospels” and Riane Eisler’s “The Chalice and the Blade” with really shaking up my thinking as a young adult. Each of these titles really shook up my preconceptions. Either title would serve as a great place to start continued exploration.
TMC: Do you have anything else you’d like to add or anyone else you’d like to thank?
KW: I’d love to thank my readers – all of them — even those who don’t agree with my work. The whole point of writing, ironically given the solitary nature of the process, is to start a conversation. The best part of being published is really the opportunities it affords to connect with readers and hear their thoughts, experiences, and insights. The conversations are truly thought-provoking and inspiring!
One thing I’d also love to do is invite people to join my Facebook page. We’ve already had some provocative conversations happening there and I’d love to have more people join in. Given that our spirituality, particularly for women, lies at the core of our happiness and our ability to make change in the world, I think it’s critical to have as many women as possible, and like-minded men, start talking about it!
“The Way” is Kristen Wolf’s first novel. Wolf’s other roles include mother and filmmaker. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Georgetown University with an M. A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University.
“The Way” is available in hardback and electronic editions from major online retailers and at your favorite local bookstore.