Friday, November 21, 2008

Learning how to read her body: Rebecca Lester's "Jesus in Our Wombs"

I recently bought Rebecca Lester's monograph Jesus in our wombs: Embodying modernity in a Mexican convent. This is one of the few monographs I've been able to find that specifically deals with the topic of the female body within a Christian community (Caroline Walker Bynum's work is another excellent example).

Lester did her fieldwork among a group of young women who were training to become nuns in a Mexican Catholic convent. She writes of each young woman:
"As she progressed in her training, she learned how to read her body - its sensations, inclinations, energies, temptations, frustrations - as indicators of how successfully she was managing this relationship between worldly and spiritual demands. She learned to view her body as the domain of negotiation between these two existential frames, a negotiation that became manifest in the very inclinations of her flesh." (p. 5)
Lester's descriptions from her fieldwork and interactions with the postulants are very well written and really give the reader a feel for what life must be like inside the convent walls. I enjoyed the way she presents her findings. She takes the reader on a journey through seven stages that the postulants go through: brokenness, belonging, containment, regimentation, self-critique, surrender, and re/collection. These chapters form the heart of her study for me. They touch on a range of bodily actions, thoughts about bodies, management of bodies, and so on, including how the postulants started to regiment their bodies to become more silent, more economical in movements, to have the right intentions when eating, to be able to kneel for longer periods of time, to become more aware of their shifting inner instincts and desires - in short, to create a mindful body (p. 179).

I will take Lester's work with me as one of my guides as I continue to think about the female body among women in Lutheran church and mission circles in Norway in the early twentieth century. I'm still searching around for other monographs that address the female body (and not just women's ways of being) in a specifically Protestant community.

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