In the opening pages of his early memoirs, Holy Woman: a divine adventureLouise Omer wonders about her relationship to religion.
‘All that praying, all that singing. To whom, you know? A guy, she writes. ‘Where am I? Where are the women ? It is this question – an inquiry into whether a progressive feminist can reconcile belief in patriarchal religious structures – that guides Omer’s narrative.
holy woman opens with the breakdown of Omer’s marriage. She was a woman and a Pentecostal preacher, but then “everything stopped”. The space this rift opened up in his life caused Omer’s faith to be questioned: questions that had “long hovered” at the periphery of his vision resurfaced.
Driven by this need for questioning, Omer embarks on the pilgrimage. “Abandon comfort,” she orders herself; ‘look there for the shining light.’ Omer travels through Ireland, Mexico, Sweden, Bulgaria and Turkey. She spends time in Scotland and returns to Ireland. It crosses Italy, Germany, Morocco and the Czech Republic. Her research, throughout her travels, is to search for the feminine in the divine and to question the prevalence of masculinity in Christian doctrine – all the while questioning how women are positioned and find a position in Judaism and Islam.
Omer’s memoirs swing cleverly between past and present – the book is divided into sections labeled “before” and “after” – which delineate the unspoken period of marital breakdown and resulting spiritual crisis. His use of the creative form of non-fiction – weaving research and personal experience into a single, braided narrative – is deft.
Omer has exquisite turns of phrase and deft manipulation of syntax, both of which elevate his prose. The lyricism of certain sequences – in particular those of Omer’s adolescence, and the moments of her travels when she delights in an uninhibited bodily awakening – skilfully renders Omer’s experience.
Omer writes from a reflexive awareness of her position: a white, cisgender woman born on stolen land. She offers inclusive language about gender and what it means to be a woman. Queer experience and existence are not hidden in holy womanwhich is refreshing.
While researching a line of inquiry into some Swedish priests’ use of non-binary pronouns for God, Omer asks if “interaction with a supreme being of this queer gender could present a broader encounter with the divine. and undo the sins of the patriarchy”. Furthermore, holy woman shows the links between colonisation, Christianity and violence, and makes these links explicit in an Australian Aboriginal context.
Throughout the memoirs, male violence and its consequences haunt the stories told by Omer. From her observation of the zeitgeist in the Republic of Ireland during the 2018 vote to legalize abortion, to her lived experience of the coercive control and emotional abuse of her ex-husband, Omer subtly shows the way whose religion is used to silence and repress.
Even when Omer transgresses the boundaries of his Christian values - engaging in sexually liberated encounters and nude photoshoots with friends – issues surrounding consent, submission, release and respect loom large. Her technique of capitalizing her ex-husband’s pronouns throughout the narrative — thus turning him into an almost adoring figure — adds to this ambiguity.
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At its heart, Omer’s memoir is a “feminist confrontation of patriarchal religion.” It is also, in part, a manual for people who might feel dissatisfied with traditional religious structures. In the closing pages, Omer presents a note to the reader, in which she calls on “all genders to consider the consequences of worshiping a male god”, and offers a short reading list of works that critique and deconstruct the traditional religious dogma.
For non-religious readers, holy woman remains fruitful reading: with interwoven research from individuals such as Mary Beard and Julia Baird, Omer’s memoir is pleasantly free of brash ideological pronouncements.
Essentially, holy woman is inextricably linked to Omer’s quest for wholeness. “The cool wind was blowing through the reeds,” she wrote. “A cloud moved away and the sun shimmered on the green water. Ripples bloomed from my body and sang across the lake. I may not be holy. But I spoke whole.
Holy Woman: a divine adventureLouise Omer
Publisher: Scribe Publications
Publication: July 5, 2022