Catholics, Mennonites, and Women: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and the Dreaded Humanities Survey

A funny thing happened on the way to the delivery of a large (65-student) interdisciplinary general education humanities survey. Everything was perhaps as expected when the two faculty members assigned to co-teach the course—one from music, one from English—determined that the unifying theme (for a course that covered centuries of artistic expression in both disciplines) would be the relation of literature and music to the sacred. They were, after all, teaching at Goshen College. And, not surprisingly, these two white male academics (or, more precisely, one white male Catholic pianist and one mixed-race-but-passes-for-white-male ex-Mennonite Quaker medievalist) decided to include a rather traditional set of white male authors and composers on their “Literature, Music, and the Sacred” syllabus. Fortunately for them, they were enough enlightened (and, yes, prodded) to include as well some non-Western and women authors and composers. What then happened, in a way that the professors did not (as far as I know) predict, was that, from the start and increasingly through the course’s several iterations, the women on the syllabus came to form a distinct, focused counter-voice to the men. For as the two faculty members sought to integrate their disciplinary approaches by building on each other’s explorations of the course’s theme, they ran headlong into the problem that woman has long presented to some of the most deeply rooted concepts of the sacred that have been formulated in the West, mostly by men, and especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In particular, they confronted the dualism that, according to many voices in this tradition, cuts across the most basic categories of human experience of self and cosmos, e.g., spirit/matter, heaven/earth, soul/body, eternity/time, etc. And they confronted the manner in which men, throughout the history of the West, have comprehended the hierarchy of sexual difference as a manifestation of this dualism. They found that, while the works of canonical male composers and authors, at their best, often complicate or even express provisional doubt regarding this dualism, the female artists on the syllabus typically begin with its rejection and then devote themselves to seeking alternatives within the patriarchal frameworks that were their only available means to create and think. What eventually became a centerpiece of this course on music, literature, and the sacred, then, was an exploration of how woman seeks to unravel the binaries with which she has been bound.

It is in this regard that my rather unpremeditated decision to put Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Sleeping Preacher at the end of the syllabus turned out to be one of the wisest pedagogical moves of my career. At the time, the choice was determined simply by chronology (hers was the most recent literary work we considered) and a vague sense that, in a course involving literature and the sacred at a Mennonite college, Sleeping Preacher ought to feature in some manner. But when I began preparing the actual lectures on that collection, I discovered just how much, and how profoundly, Spicher Kasdorf grapples with this dualism, in its many guises, across the span of the book. In particular, I discovered how richly her tightly wound yet expansive meditations on the topic resonated with the earlier women’s voices we had heard in the course (from Margery Kempe in the fifteenth century through Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth) and how Spicher Kasdorf’s unraveling of the dualism serves also as a means to fashion an artistic identity in negotiation with the sacred that was every bit as compelling as those of the others in the course, both male and female.

The two denomination-titled poems at the center of Sleeping Preacher—“Catholics” and “Mennonites”—were irresistible choices for the course’s final lecture. Not only did the denominational dialogue that they enact mirror that of much of the course, with its consideration, within a Mennonite institutional context, of the pre-Reformation Catholic spirituality that informed many of its musical and literary works (and, less importantly if more colorfully, with the rather different religious sensibilities of the course’s instructors). But also, the two poems very directly address Western dualism and the problems it presents for girls, women, and artists by thinking through these problems through a matrix of denominational history, identity, conflict, and difference—a matrix which, like a reverse prism, drew in the myriad colors of the course’s musical and literary works and focused them into a tight, powerful beam.

This experience inspired my one foray into literary criticism on a living author (Mennonite Quarterly Review 82.2), in which I give an account of how I understand this pair of poems in these terms. In my conclusion there and in my final course lecture, I suggested that “Catholics” cannily stages a childhood recapitulation of Reformation conflict as a means to wrestle with the antinomy (in the Judeo-Christian tradition generally, and in the Anabaptist one in particular) between the ornamented female body and a counter-worldly conception of the holy: between, that is, the two sides of the dualism. “Mennonites” then tackles Western dualism in its Anabaptist articulation more head-on, ultimately painting a remarkably potent image of transcendence of this dualism, one that reimagines the author’s faith tradition as a collective aesthetic effort that seeks a kind of marriage of heaven and earth. So aptly for a course on music, literature and the sacred, this multi-millennia survey arrived at its denouement with the final lines of “Mennonites”:

  We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
  those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
  that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.

Seizing upon the ancient wheat and chaff metaphor—an epitome of Western dualism in general and Anabaptist nonconformity in particular—Spicher Kasdorf literalizes it, bringing it down to the earth, a de-figuration that recalls the fact that, in the actual work of threshing, it is the chaff that rises. So rooting the trope in the sweaty labor of flesh-and-blood bodies, she turns it upside-down, aligning the figure for everything on the wrong side of the dualism—the chaff—with another effort of bodies, the traditional Anabaptist aesthetic/spiritual work of four-part harmony. The result is a tremendously evocative image of dualism overcome, one that, for the Humanities course, served to recapitulate, complicate, and envision an alternative to that which has long vexed the relations among women, art, and the sacred. There could have been no more fitting, nor more hopeful, way to conclude the course.

About the Author

Robert J. Meyer-Lee

Bobby Meyer-Lee, Ph.D., is the Margaret W. Pepperdene Distinguished Visiting Professor of English at Agnes Scott College (Decatur, GA), Associate Professor of English at Indiana University South Bend, and Co-Editor ofThe Journal of English and Germanic Philology. After finishing his graduate studies at Yale and few years teaching at Rhodes College (Memphis), he taught in the English department at Goshen College from 2004 to 2008, where he was delighted to learn from his students and colleagues much more about his own Mennonite background than his peripatetic life had to then taught him. He publishes primarily on long-dead authors of late medieval England, although every now and then he risks putting into circulation something about the more recent past. He is currently completing a book on authorial anxiety about the value of literature in theCanterbury Tales, the roots of which lie in a Maple Scholars project that he led while at Goshen.