2016-06-30
Donna Freitas is a professor of spirituality and religion at St. Michael's College in Vermont. There, she is known to wear stylish yet impractical shoes in all manner of weather. When she's not devouring Chick Lit novels and designer chocolates or hanging out with friends, she researches pop culture and women's spirituality.

Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell recently talked with Freitas about her book Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise, which describes how Bridget Jones and the other gals of Chick Lit became her spiritual role models.


You've read Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich, but you've said they didn't satisfy you. Why?

I have a long-standing struggle with the mystics like Julian of Norwich or St. Augustine. One of the reasons is that they have very extreme commitments to religion in their lives, in the sense that their whole lives are directed toward living up to a religious ideal. I think our culture has shifted a lot. We have many different commitments in our life. It's difficult for us to imagine becoming like a Julian of Norwich who was a nun who cloistered herself and directed her entire life toward loving God. She made very difficult decisions in her life; prayed for things that we would never pray for, or most of us wouldn't, like sickness so that she could experience Christ's suffering--things like that. And I think while the mystics are very interesting for us to read about, it's also very difficult for us to glean spiritual advice from them, or to look at them as role models because there's so much history between us.

I was looking for somebody who seemed closer to where we are now. And Bridget Jones is someone who resonated with many people I know. And so I thought, why not look at her as a model? Let's look at somebody who's close to us, rather than somebody who feels so far away.

How is she a spiritual model? Did you see her that way immediately?

I didn't think of it the first time I read the book. It just made me laugh, and I could relate to it. And I loved the fact that all my friends were reading it, and that we could talk about it, and we could laugh about Bridget. Then I went to graduate school, where when you're studying spirituality and women, everyone points you toward people like Julian of Norwich or Hildegard von Bingen or Mother Teresa. And nobody points you toward somebody who looks like you. One of the things I started asking was, Why couldn't Bridget Jones be a mystic? Why don't we look at Bridget? Because she was very accessible. I had re-read Bridget Jones's Diary and thought about the fact that she's a character telling her story through a diary, through confessing. And then I thought, "Hmm, that's what St. Augustine did." And then I looked at this inner-poise thing that she was searching for. And I started thinking, Maybe she is a contemporary spiritual figure.

Can you explain the concept of "inner poise?"

Inner poise for Bridget is a compass that guides her sensibility about how she wants to be as a person and who she wants to be in the world with respect to her friends and her relationships and her family I think it has an inner component and an outer component. It has to do with how she sees herself as a person and then also who she sees herself as in relationships. So for her, it's like her moral compass, her overarching sensibility about her goals in life.

At one point she drank too much.and she was like, "There goes my inner poise down the toilet." It's a sense of balance in her life. She knows that she drinks to excess, she smokes to excess, and she eats to excess and she loves to excess sometimes. And she has this sense that extremes don't work for her. And she wants to have a more balanced sense of who she is--and so she goes on this journey toward inner poise.

Is she a closet Buddhist?

I don't think you can call Bridget a Buddhist because she has too many needs. And she loves them. I talk about that in the book, about why Bridget makes a funny Buddha--because desire and love and needing are such a part of who she is. So I don't think she has the sense that she needs to give up everything. She doesn't feel like she needs to give up drinking altogether; she doesn't feel like she needs to give up food or chocolate; but she has this unhealthy affinity for them that she needs to put in check.

Which is, in a way, the pilgrimage toward enlightenment--if she can reach inner poise.

It is her own version of enlightenment in many ways, but one of things I wanted to emphasize is that it's not just personal for her, and it's not just an individual kind of enlightenment. It encompasses other people. She's a very relational person. And her sense of inner poise is not just about her achieving a certain sense of being; it extends to how she is in relationships, how she treats other people. How she knows what the good is. And so her inner poise has to do with her sense of that good, and who she thinks she's called to be.

Maybe the difference between Julian of Norwich and modern women as spiritual models is that among modern women there's no asceticism in searching for spiritual enlightenment--or enlightenment, period.

One of the things that makes someone like a Julian of Norwich-or any spiritual figure for that matter, particularly from the medieval era--so difficult for us is the extreme asceticism that was involved in worshipping God or in having a spiritual sensibility. It was about extreme bodily discipline; it was about getting beyond the things of this world rather than having spirituality mediated through the world and through relationships. Our culture has experienced such a shift in that sense, and I think women today are not looking to give up their place in the world. They're not looking to turn away from the world to find God. They're not looking to experience extreme bodily self-discipline as a way of getting to God.

Often the spiritual figures who are held up are very extreme--for example, Mother Teresa. People can admire her, but it's very difficult to be her. So I think people are searching for models who are closer to who they are, are searching for people like Bridget who is clearly in love with the world in every which way. How can we gain a sense of spirituality through that loving? I think it's found in many traditions, but I think often the spiritual role models are the more extreme characters as opposed to everyday people.

Tell me about chocolate spirituality.

When I was writing the book, I was thinking that my chocolate habits were much like Bridget's cigarette habits or her drinking habits. I don't smoke, but I do eat a lot of chocolate. And so I recognized the fact that if you put a box of chocolate in front of me, 30 minutes later it will be gone. And I realize that's kind of extreme; so I thought that was a funny thing I had in common in Bridget.

So in other words, it's like the pure bliss of enjoying the chocolate is the spiritual moment?

I talk about chocolate because I eat it to the extreme, much like Bridget drinks to the extreme. That's my little vice.

Speaking of vices, why is sex spiritual?

Because we make it that way. Bridget and her friends, and everyone on Sex and the City, and all these other women characters in chick lit novels are all having sex outside marriage. So one of the things I was looking to do was to figure out, How do we incorporate this experience into our spiritual lives? Because people tend to divorce their sex life and their spiritual life, since religion teaches that marriage is the only legitimate place for sex.

I went searching through the different traditions looking for some kernel of wisdom that would affirm what women are experiencing in their sex lives before they get married-if they get married at all. And I really was not able to find anything. So one of the conclusions that I came to was, "OK, if religion is not going to do this for us, we're living our lives in a way that people really haven't done before. We're not getting married until we're in our 30s or 40s or ever and so if we're going to be having sex and we want that to be incorporated into our spiritual lives, then we're the generation that's going to have to figure out how to make that sacred. Because no one else has done that for us. And so I am saying, Let's figure out how to do this.

What did you conclude?

It literally has to come from us. I admire Elaine Pagels' understanding of authority and the fact that we need to remember that we're the authors of our own authority. There's a self that's implied there. You can give yourself authority. You have the authority to believe in someone. Can we stand with our own sense of authority and affirm sexuality as a spiritual thing? There is tons of literature within religious traditions that affirms sexuality. There's erotic poetry, there's all kinds of wonderful things about sexuality and marriage. One of the things I think we need to do is take that poetry, take that work done on marriage about the importance of sexuality and open that up beyond marriage to apply to our sex lives outside of marriages. I think that's a place to begin.

In your book, you also bring up Sex and the City. You suggest that the four characters' sitting around a table and telling dating stories is a spiritual act. Why?

Spiritual practices are not just about sitting down and praying by yourself. There's a fellowship aspect. You come together in community, over conversation, over dinner, over a shared something that everybody has an affinity for. Traditionally, people came together in community in worship services, in religion. I think young people today are not necessarily seeking it in the walls of a church or a synagogue.

So we come together in dinner parties. And one of the questions I was trying to challenge my readers to think about is, Can we look at some of the things we do in community with our friends as having a spiritual significance, as a kind of ritualistic practice? I think that's something we need to think about. Because spirituality isn't just an individual thing, it's also a communal thing.

It seems you're trying to reflect what's happening in the culture spirituality, but then you are also trying to push our theology a bit.

I'm definitely pushing boundaries. This book is meant to be subversive. People believe the religious figures we look up to are supposed to be saint-like. And Bridget's no saint. But neither are we. So one of the things I'm trying to do is to say, OK, we can get these ideal portraits of what it means to be a woman in religion, but that doesn't change the fact that we're real women who have real issues and we're living lives that are very, very different from the women who have gone before us. And how do we reshape our sense of spirituality to fit where we are?

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