"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Carrie Frederick Frost on Maternal Bodies

I had a very enjoyable conversation over dinner with Carrie Frederick Frost, an Orthodox scholar who is one of the officers of the newly formed International Orthodox Theological Association, whose inaugural meeting I attended this past January in Iasi, Romania--a delightful town which hosted a splendid conference. She told me of her forthcoming book, Maternal Body: A Theology of the Incarnation from the Christian East (Paulist, 2019, 144pp.) and when, several weeks ago, I received a review copy from the publisher, I sent her some questions for an interview. Here are her thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

CFF: I was raised in a Carpatho Russian parish in southern West Virginia with no church school or effort to educate its few children, but the hours I logged in liturgy were formative in ways I am only able to glimpse now. I had lots of questions about how the church worked and what things meant, and even though the priests in my life were not always able to answer them or give answers that made sense, I was never shut down or discouraged from asking.

My father’s parents had emigrated from what is now Belarus just before World War I and my mother of Scottish, Irish, and other northern European descent had grown up Southern Baptist, left that community as soon as she was an adult, and then later converted to Orthodoxy after she married my father. They were both, each in different ways, pious Orthodox Christians whose faith inspired those around them. Somehow, all these things worked together, I believe, to propel me into theological studies later in my life. I studied Tibetan Buddhism as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and, after working all sorts of jobs unrelated to theology, getting married, and starting a family—I went back to the University of Virginia for my PhD in Theology, Ethics, and Culture, which I was fortunate to do under the advisement of the wonderful Vigen Guroian.

AD: What led you to write Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East?

CFF: This book does have an origin story that is different from most works of theology! When I was working on my PhD, my husband and I went through a process of discernment about the possibility of having a third child. To our total surprise, at a routine ultrasound at the end of the first trimester of my pregnancy, we found out that we would be having our third, fourth, and fifth children: triplets. Everyone in the family (me, my husband, and our two older children) processed the news in different ways, and I write about these in the “Preface” of the book.

For me, I became deeply thirsty for spiritual information on motherhood in my tradition. This led to me dedicating much of the rest of my graduate work as possible to studying motherhood in Orthodox theology and ultimately to writing this book (which is not an academic monograph, by the way; it’s directed at a wide audience). I composed this book because I went looking for something I could not find—theological writing about motherhood—and after working with other sources like icons, hymns, and prayers, I ended up engaging in theological reflection on motherhood myself and wanted to offer that up to others who might have the same thirst. The book ended up being about other things, too, which I discuss below.

I feel this book has an audience has a broad audience: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians—and others. Christianity, I’ve noticed, does not have a monopoly on motherhood, nor does Orthodoxy within the Christian world. But, I do feel that there are sources, ways of perceiving motherhood, and, indeed, “a theology of incarnation” found within Orthodoxy that might be of benefit to people both inside and outside the bounds of the Orthodox Church.

Paulist Press made good sense to be because they have a broad readership and I felt the book would find its way into many hands with the Paulist imprimatur. While I do understand that “theology of the body” is a loaded term in the Catholic context, and Julie Hanlon Rubio says as much in her lovely “Foreword,” this is not the case—in my mind—in the Orthodox context, and by doing a “theology of incarnation” around motherhood, I believe I am demonstrating just that. My references to the theology of my Catholic sisters and brothers are a way to welcome them into my work and to open my explanations of Orthodox sources and theology to them. I don’t so much see myself as positioning my work within Catholic debates as engaging in theological hospitality.

AD: One of the problems with the use of that phrase ("theology of the body") in some Catholic circles is that it seems straight out of European romanticism in which motherhood is rendered monochromatically and simplistically. In Orthodoxy, however, as you note in your preface, your research brought forth "other, more complex portrayals of motherhood." Give us a couple of examples if you would.

Well, for one thing, I am quite up front in the book about the fact that the sources on motherhood in the Orthodox tradition are not all sweetness and light. One example: in the Conception chapter, I discuss the church’s broad failure to minister to women and their families after miscarriage; the prayers for miscarriage that entered the service books in the fifteenth/sixteenth century and remain there still portray the bereaved woman as involved in the “killing of another person” and call her a “murderess.” Regardless of any lack of clarity around the causes of miscarriage in the medieval world, there is no possible justification—theological or pastoral—for using these prayers today. So, I do not whitewash the ways the church has failed its mothers.

A different example: In the Birthgiving chapter, I discuss the different ways of depicting Mary in Nativity icons, and what her posture and gaze are thought to indicate. Paulist was generous enough to include color plates in the book, so my readers are able to see an example of the Mary in the contemplative repose posture that I discuss in detail, and that I think offers mothers a model for understanding motherhood as not mutually exclusive from the contemplative life, but, in fact, deeply contemplative in its own right. What I find so interesting and inspiring about these images is that they are a reminder that theology is a living enterprise in relationship with our embodied experience as faith, and, as I note, I am especially curious to see how depictions of the Nativity do or not change over time as more women and mothers become iconographers.

AD: I love your phrase about motherhood being "ferociously physical" (p.xv). You helpfully show how this does not end with birth, or even begin there, but that the sheer physicality is found across the life-cycle:  conception (ch.1), pregnancy (ch.2), birthgiving (3), postpartum (4), and breastfeeding (5). Of these, I especially gravitated to your last two chapters. A few questions here: You allude (p.64) to some possible revisions to the "churching" rite's prayers for purification--which your chapter handles so carefully and compellingly. Would it be possible, in your judgment, to have such revisions include a petition for the "purification" or "enlightenment" of minds darkened by postpartum depression, which has been brutal for several women I know? (Here, to be clear, ritual practice could be seen not to replace but to work in tandem with, e.g., psychotropics or psychotherapy if necessary.)

I would welcome the inclusions of some general language for healing after childbirth. Most, but not all, childbirth experiences include something that warrants healing, be it fatigue (mental, physical, or spiritual), the separation of abdominal muscles, a perineal laceration, anxiety, postpartum blues, or postpartum depression, etc. Although we might be able to speak of “purification” and “enlightenment” in the case of postpartum depression in other quarters, not in these prayers; these prayers must be entirely cleansed, as it were, of that sort of language. As I make the case in my book, our understand of impurity in a Christian context is so thoroughly associated with sin that we cannot disentangle the two, and there’s no need to try when we have other ways of talking about healing.

AD: Your chapter on breastfeeding notes that for some this can be a real process of "trial and error" and does not always go smoothly. You further note that "the effort of producing milk is enormously taxing on the mother's body" (p.68). Let me press on this point a bit with a couple of questions: First, I've been wondering for some time why much of modern Christianity seems ill at ease with the genre of lament. Do we need to be honest and speak of times in motherhood (or parenthood in general) where we are exhausted, frustrated, angry, depressed, utterly physically drained--and needing to voice all this openly in our prayers and rites the way the psalmists did and do?

CFF: I am guessing it won’t shock you then when I say that By the Rivers of Babylon is one of the nursery lullabies in the Frederick Frost household? I think passing one on to our children from the cradle shows the high estimation we have for religious lament.

The idea of voicing the frustration, anger, exhaustion, etc., of motherhood in  prayers and rites is interesting to me because one of the themes of my book is that mothers have not been the voices, have not been the authors of prayers about motherhood in the church at all, much less had the opportunity to consider including any of these sentiments.

AD: I have recently been thinking a lot about the well-known pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott and his controversial lecture in 1947, "Hate in the Counter-Transference" in which he shocked people by honestly admitting that there come times when physicians hate their patients just as mothers hate their children. This, he assured his shocked audience, is a normal and necessary developmental task! Do we as Christians sometimes unhelpfully glide over those moments where even in families we just can't stand each other? 

I have so many thoughts in response here that I hardly know where to start, though I don’t think I have a straight-forward answer to your question. One thing in the background of my book, against which I am reacting, is a very saccharine, sentimentalized, unnuanced portrait of motherhood that one see sometimes in the Orthodox Church today that understands motherhood as the pinnacle of womanhood and allows no room for even ambiguous, much less negative experiences or perceptions of maternity. Besides being theologically spurious, I cannot see that this is a recipe for good relationships or growth.

Another thought: For years I participated in a continuous Psalter read during Lent, in which a group of women divide up the Psalter and rotate through it, such that it’s being collectively read in its entirely every day and each woman reads it through during the fast. The first few years I found myself surprised by all the anger. And struggle, heartbreak, despair, mourning, and bitterness! This was an academic source of interest to me until my father died followed by a personally hellish sequence of events. The following Lent, the only person that understood me was the Psalmist, and I remember clearly reaching back through tears and three thousand years to thank him for his company.

At some point after that, I wondered about the possibilities of a female Psalmist. I know the poet Scott Cairns has composed some “Idiot Psalms,” but perhaps there’s a women out there who will try her hand and add a woman’s voice to this canon of lament?

AD: You speak of how the Orthodox tradition sometimes "denigrates the maternal body" (p.xvi), and I've certainly seen this in some of the hymnody and other texts you cite. Is there context here that as a scholar you can offer to help us understand why that might be? Does that scholarship offer any "aid and comfort," as it were, to mothers who may be taken aback, hurt, or even driven out of the Church by feeling denigrated as "impure" ?

CFF: As I insist throughout the book, the core theological understanding of the body in the Orthodox tradition is that it is creator-fashioned, our venue for communion in this life, and our vehicle into the next—and this is just as true for women as it is for men, just as true for mothers as for anyone else. We are quite capable of sullying our bodies (and our minds) as we wish, but this does not alter its significance.

Therefore, practices such as banning women from communion during menstruation and excluding them from church (and communion) after childbirth based on a portrayal of childbirth as unclean and defiling are inconsistent with these core theological premises. Scholarship about the childbirth prayers in particular has amply demonstrated that the connection between impurity and childbirth is a late addition to the rites; that the versions of these prayers that were in place for some time concerned first the baby; and then when mention of the mother was first added, her “purity” was not a concern. I think all these things are helpful for women and mothers (and the whole church community) to know, but, depending on women’s experiences in the church, for some I am afraid they may be cold comfort. For me, there is thus a real sense of urgency to expunge the church of menstrual bans on communion and to align the words of these prayers with the convictions of our theology so that they are pastorally helpful, not harmful to mothers and their families.

AD: In your epilogue you contrast the relentless march of chronological time with a "deeper sense of time that is lived out in the maternal body." I'm wondering (and here I'm thinking of Catherine Pickstock's brilliant critique in her astonishing book After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy) of modern conceptions of time and how they were foolishly adopted by liturgical reformers in the 1960s in the West) whether you would see a parallel in the flow of the liturgical year rather than the "secular" or civil calendar. Does maternal-bodily time more closely track that of liturgical time in any way?

I am convinced that modern conceptions of linear time are not nearly as reality based as we are led to believe by the culture in which we live. I don’t know Pickstock’s work (though now I am going to look for it), but I think of Peter Berger’s observation that the modern world’s conception of time changed when timelines (as in the charts one sees regularly in newspapers and textbooks, showing a sequence of historical events) were invented and became all the rage in the late 18th century. Think, for comparison, of fourth century Jerusalem when the liturgical year was celebrated cyclically by pilgrims and residents who not just reenacted, but re-experienced the life of Jesus throughout the year; this is not linear time; this could never be represented in, or reduced into, a timeline.

When my children were younger, before we went into church, I would make a show of taking off my watch and turn to them and say, “We are now leaving time; transcending time, and heading into supertime.” This was more than preventing them from asking me what time it was during church; it was a way to emphasize that the liturgical experience is, in fact, outside of time as we might otherwise conceive it.

Aspects of maternity are outside of time, or differently connected to time, too. For one thing, the entire maternal, even female, experience is cyclical, rather than linear—the menstrual cycle is constantly waxing and waning; there is an eternal return. In addition to the sacraments, if ever there is a moment of supertime in the human body, it is the conception and carrying of another human person inside of you. The arrival and nurturing of another person within one’s body is a physical epiphany. All these things are ways that the maternal body experiences time in a non-linear, more liturgical way.

AD: Having finished the book, what sorts of projects are you at work on now?

This fall, all of my energies are going towards teaching and childrearing. I am teaching at Western Washington University for this first time: both an Introduction to the Study of Religion class and a Christianity and Modern Literature class. I worked in some letters of Ignatius of Antioch to the former and I was able to design the latter which includes Flannery O’Connor stories Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” excerpt, and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, all of which have been fantastically enjoyable to teach.

I am also continuing to teach at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary this fall, and there I am supervising an Independent Study on the topic of “Women’s Roles in the Church: Past, Present, and Future.” Two very different teaching environments—one secular undergraduate, one seminary graduate—but, I derive great pleasure from being in the classroom with my students in any environment.

As for the children rearing: four out of my five children are still at home. I have a sense of how fleeting that time with them is, and I want to place myself in a position to savor it. The bits of time left over here and there are reserved for the nonprofit work I do. I am on the board of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) and we are busy planning our next mega-conference for 2023 (after having wrapped up our first one in Romania earlier this year), and I am on the advisory board for Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess and am actively involved in their ongoing work advocating for the re-institution of ordained deaconesses.

All this being said, I am always reading and making little notes and thinking this and that about what major project I ought to undertake next. In many ways, it would make sense for me to compile my work on the childbirth prayers into a book or write a book-length argument for ordained deaconesses in the church today. I have also been thinking for some time about a book on Prayer of the Heart in the home setting. But it is not yet clear to me which of these (or perhaps another topic entirely) is my vocation. The thing about Maternal Body was that it was so clear to me, there was no question that I must write this book; all other possible projects fell to the wayside. I may not ever have that level of clarity around a project again, but I would like to reach some spiritual discernment about my next major undertaking.

AD: Sum up the book for us, your hopes for it, and who especially should read it.

This book is about many things! I encounter Orthodox icons, hymns, homilies, and other sources in Orthodox Christianity, seeking what they have to offer a theological reflection on motherhood; in this way the book is about Orthodox Christian sources on motherhood. Along the way, I address Orthodox practices that have neglected mothers’ bodies; in this way, the book is about living within a truth-bearing but flawed tradition and what this demands of me as a practitioner—a situation in which I am far from alone. I offer a fresh view of our bodies through the lens of motherhood; and in this way the book is a corrective to disparaging views of the body that surround and infect the church. I encounter ways in which women, including mothers, are entering aspects of the Orthodox theological conversation in which they’ve never significantly been involved before (they are becoming theologians, iconographers, hymnographers, etc.); and in this way the book is about the possibilities and hope as women’s voices are integrated into the church really for the first time. In all these ways, this is a book not just for mothers, but for other women and for men interested in any of these topics.

Ultimately, though, Maternal Body is about understanding our embodied experience as humans with joy and better cultivating a relationship with our Creator. May it work in this way.

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