“What if no one believes me?” my friend posits, with fearful eyes. It was another situation of harassment and she was sick of holding it in. Even though I assured her that she was doing the right thing by telling her story and I encouraged her to report the situation, I truthfully was not sure if anything would come of it. But I believed speaking up was better than staying silent.
My friend is not alone in both her desire for freedom from her secret -- and her fears of how her message will be received. We find ourselves in a historical moment where women in scattered corners of the globe step forward out of the darkness of their silence, despite bribes, threats, and fears. They speak their truths -- and they sometimes face repercussions or consequences.
Most of us want to be heard and taken seriously, not just in grave situations of violence, but also everyday life.
We women tend to hold in our words, sometimes because we second-guess our own authority, sometimes because we fear the outcomes of speaking truth.
We might wonder what is the point of speaking truth if no one listens, if those in power disregard us. Is the message to just speak truth into the wind even if no one hears it?
I think of Elizabeth, whose lived experience gives us some direction. In the narrative from the Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth gives birth to a son who would be special, given the clues in the text like the angel Gabriel proclaiming his birth. The Lukan author drives this point home: "What, then, will this child be?" His mother knows knows his name is to be John, “which means, ‘Yahweh has shown favor.’ John was destined for greatness.
We might wonder how Elizabeth knows what was revealed to her husband Zechariah, even though the angel made him mute. Possibilities range from Zechariah writing out the message on a tablet to Elizabeth (that is, if we can assume she knew how to read) to God visiting her, as well. However she may have learned of her baby’s name must have been a strong, divine experience, for this experience becomes her conviction. When we know our truths deep down, especially when these truths come from the sacred space in our hearts where God speaks to us, we must speak.
And Elizabeth speaks up. She says no to her community when they insist on naming the baby after his father. His name is to be John. And they don’t believe her. Mute Zechariah then writes the same name on a tablet and they are amazed.
The common sexism of this situation is not lost on women. Many of us have been in positions where we say aloud our ideas and are not heard, and then a man says the exact same thing and it's brilliant.
I wonder if Elizabeth was hurt. The community honored more the written words of a man (her husband’s) than the spoken words of a woman.
On the other hand (and let’s be honest) she may have grown accustomed to being ignored.
I relate to both sentiments. I consider myself a bright and bold person, yet I struggle when others don’t recognize this and don’t hear me. When this happens, I begin question myself after conversations: Was my tone too sharp? Was it too laid-back? Did I cross a line with my questions? Did I say ‘like’ too many times? Did I get too high pitched? I get caught in the weeds of what I possibly did wrong, rather than remember who I am deep down.
We need to be heard to do our jobs well, to build truthful and healthy relationships, and to receive affirmation to keep moving forward. But we aren’t always given this affirmation from others -- and it can be easy to get caught up in our own pain, desolation, or numbness.
I remember wise words of my spiritual director: “Beware of fascination with evil,” she says to me. “When you dwell on it, which spirit are you with?”
When fear, rooted in darkness, raises questions of self-credibility then --- “What if no one believes me?” becomes our end. And if we fixate our eyes and attention on traditional power structures and gender roles, then we are surely going to be disappointed.
On the other hand, If we gaze upon the life sources, those that raise us up, we can do great things. In the first reading today, Isaiah reminds us that “our reward is in the Lord.” We are made glorious in God’s sight. We show God’s glory when we shift our attention away from that which ultimately puts us in a sink hole of despair. That which keeps us quiet, submissive, and depressed.
God knows us -- and we are wonderfully made, as the psalm reminds us today. God knit Godself into us. We reflect the God inside of our being when we don’t get so caught up in the weeds that bind us in darkness.
As a holy Jewish woman, Elizabeth would have known both of these scriptures.
She knew she could not dwell in the darkness, in the space where she questioned her validity and her calling. She had a job to do, which, ultimately, was the task of raising the prophetic child who would proclaim the coming of Jesus the Messiah. He learned all about speaking God's truth without regard for whether people could handle it. And John would not be John without his parents. Elizabeth fulfilled her task and therefore plays a crucial role in God’s revelation.
All parents-to-be ponder the question that Elizabeth’s community wonders about her baby: “What then, will this child be?”
What about us? Will we be ones who interiorize our fears and stunt our own growth? Or will we be servants like Elizabeth, and her son John the Baptist? Will we rest our eyes on a hopeful future with the God through whom we radiate glory? Will we speak out and proclaim this truth to the world?
Elizabeth M. Stewart
Elizabeth Mueller Stewart, a St. Louis native, graduated from Cor Jesu Academy in 2006. In 2009, after living in El Salvador with the Casa de la Solidaridad program (Santa Clara University), she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Justice & Peace Studies at Marquette University. Following undergrad, she joined Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest for a year in Washington, then went south for warmer and sunnier weather in Berkeley, California. In 2014, she graduated with a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.
Beth is the Director of Service Learning at a Catholic high school in the Bay Area. She just married Dan Stewart.
She would like to thank Stephanie Hwang, Molleen Dupree-Dominguez, and Kate Walsh-Cunnane for their editing and support throughout this process.