At the start of her new memoir, Holy Woman, Louise Omer asks herself five questions:
Why was my beloved God male?
Why were Bible stories mostly about men?
Why was Eve responsible for the Fall of Man?
Why were there abusers in the church?
And how could I reconcile all of this with my feminism?
“No matter whether or not you can answer those questions, it’s essential that they’re asked,” she says now. “Because these questions led me to give up on Pentecostalism entirely, because it runs on male supremacy and indoctrinates women into a slave mentality, it makes us see ourselves as inferior. People might disagree with me on that, but that’s my experience.”
Omer was never the obvious candidate to become a Pentecostal preacher. As a teenage girl growing up in an atheist home in Adelaide’s “eerily dull” suburbs, she “harboured a distinct terror of being ordinary” – a fear she now thinks led her to join a Pentecostal church at the age of 15. Following her twin brother for the promise of live music and boys, it was there that she found purpose, in the sweaty concerts and fevered sermons – a sense of being special for choosing to be saved: “I felt closest to God when swaying in blue light, hands out in supplication,” she writes. “Once I had a taste, I wanted more.”
But a decade later, Omer wanted out. She had risen in the church to become a rare example of a female preacher, but noticed how all the women who were given power “were thin, nonassertive, and sweet”. The men in the church, meanwhile, “excelled at performative goodness. They talked real nice to us girls, called us sweetie when we were young, and expected women to be pretty and incompetent.”
She had married young, to another man in the church, but the marriage broke down after six years. When she left him, the church left her; she realised she had “been socialised into a femininity that … reassured and smiled, even when it hurt. Especially when it hurt.”
Now 33, Omer speaks with the quiet certainty of someone who has worked hard to figure out exactly who they are. Is she happier now, without Pentecostalism? “Deeply,” she says. “I was not awake then, I had to push my actual emotions down. I have met my anger, which was repressed because Christian women are meant to be so nice all the fucking time. I’ve finally met my true self.”
Fresh from leaving the church, Omer had wondered: was there a place for feminist women in patriarchal religions? So she went on a year-long, global pilgrimage: in Rome, she searched for Pope Joan, the legendary woman who supposedly became a pontiff by disguising herself as a man; in Berlin, she met a female imam leading mixed-gender prayers; and learned about Jewish feminism in Prague. In Sweden, she met a renegade queer priest who refused to use male pronouns for God. “I think it is violence towards women – and everything that is female – that God is solely connected to male,” she tells Omer. In Ireland, she visited Brigidine nuns who maintain a flame for St Brigid, a goddess later adopted into Christianity to become one of three of Ireland’s patron saints – one of many female religious figures Omer learns about who once had power until, as she writes, “she could only request it from Big Daddy.”
Omer grieved her new self-awareness. She finally saw the error inherent in her quest: there is nothing feminist about patriarchal religions, only feminist believers trying to subvert them from within.
“My pilgrimage was on hold, I didn’t belong, but still I searched: this time for understanding,” she writes. “Now, I wanted to arm myself with knowledge that would help me heal.”
Omer may not have all the answers, but she has done all of the reading: the theologians, the feminist scholars, the trauma experts. “The fundamental question of why God is a man in Islam, in Christianity, in Judaism, and in many others, it is because they were born in a social context of patriarchy,” she says. “Take Christianity – it rose up in a time of feudal lands, lords and kings. All of this is represented in biblical language we use today, so the way we relate to God serves male power and authority.”
Reading Holy Woman, it is easy to feel encouraged by some of the women Omer talks to, who are doing brave things to make space for themselves, like the Swedish queer priest or the female imam in Morocco. But some will find it hard to not see what they are trying to do as futile: some Muslims would never accept a female imam, and some Christians would be appalled by the concept of a female God. (As Omer writes, Vatican City, the heart of Catholicism, is the only place in the world where women still can’t vote.) What does reinterpreting scripture matter when a religion remains patriarchal in practice?
Omer cites what is called “liberation theology”: essentially, radicalising a religion from within it. “Anyone can be an agent of change within the system, like changing the gender of God to Goddess, removing gender completely, reinterpreting scripture, or creating new rituals,” she says.
On her journey she saw hope on the margins: the gay preachers, the people of colour rejecting white, conservative visions of Abrahamic religions; the women and non-binary people reinterpreting scripture. “Maybe most mosques are not going to have a woman doing the khutbah on Fridays,” she says. “But there are strong Islamic women who speak out often about religious matters. These questions are personal for everyone – do you stay or do you go? What can you accept? And what can you change from within?”
“It’s easier to be on the outside and reject religion completely; on the inside, you still have an emotional relationship with the divine. When I was religious, my faith was the most precious thing in my life. It’s really special and important. So I understand that a lot of people don’t want to let it go.”
Omer wrote Holy Woman in Ireland during Covid lockdowns and “didn’t realise it at the time, but I almost needed to be 16,000 kilometres from home to have such distance from my past, to really search within myself without concern for the authority figures in my life.
“A lot of people say that maybe you should go to therapy instead of writing a memoir, but I didn’t go to therapy. I just smoked a lot and learned that I have a great capacity to consume sugar.”
Free of religion, Omer looked for new ways to surrender; she writes of a casual, and often violent, sexual relationship she had with a man during her time in Morocco. Part of her still sought submission. “When I was on my knees, I felt the same spiritual surrender, the same blissful purge, the same orgasmic exhilaration, as when I danced to God in church,” she writes. “Being below reflected my not-good-enoughness; the posture of devotion was one of subjugation.” But their sexual dynamic was devoid of respect; he choked with a belt, put his foot on her neck and hit her during sex – but never asked why she cried afterwards. “My subordination had leaked into all aspects of my life,” she writes.
“I still deeply miss the surrender in religion,” she says now. “The only thing that comes close -” she giggles “- is taking mushrooms. It is so beautiful to completely surrender control and power. But when you completely rescind that, it means you’re completely trusting whoever else is making decisions and you have to choose who you do that with very wisely. And I didn’t. I don’t think I could go down that road again – I’m just really working against any manner in which love and desire is connected to domination.”
These days, Omer is back living in South Australia. She is studying yogic philosophy and meditation, which has taught her the crucial skill of self-compassion. She’s “all about goddesses right now”, and is reading up on Hinduism and paganism. “I’ve just got to get that shit out of my system,” she says. “I removed myself from patriarchal monotheistic religion, but I still deeply want to have practice. I did really miss it for a long time, I felt bereft. So I’m reworking that into something that works for me – in a mode that is not about my own subordination.”
But though she’s back home, she hasn’t stayed in touch with her former church. “I don’t really want to keep relationships with those people. It was a self exile. And church relationships are contingent. We are united by shared belief, and once that is removed, what else do you have? Maybe not much. And I know that I’m betraying them, I guess?” she says, tentatively. “But it’s important that I face the music. That is really important for me – moving from a state of compliance, to defiance.”
July 16, 2022 at 01:51AM Sian Cain