On Valentine’s Day weekend, about 1,300 participants gathered at Washington National Cathedral for the Sacred Circles Women’s Spirituality Conference, which explored the theme of love in action as a collective and powerful force that could reshape the world and save the planet.
From February 13 through February 14, the conference included such topics as Rediscovering Ancient Paths of the Divine Feminine, Inspiration from the Soul, and Dancing with Shakti, which is the Sanskrit name for sacred feminine creative power.
Since 1996, Sacred Circles has made a difference in the lives of women. Created by Cathedral senior programmer Grace Ogden to honor the divine feminine spirit, the biennial conference has grown in global dimension and historic outreach, with the presenters this year coming from as far away as Afghanistan.
Designed to celebrate all faiths, the opening plenary began with Jewish Renewal Movement leader Rabbi Phyllis Berman conducting a sacred interfaith Shabbat in tandem with cantor Holly Taya Shere, whose “Holy, Holy, Holy” chant resonated deeply throughout the cavernous Gothic spaces.
Keynote speaker Karen Armstrong, author and religious historian, declared that “unless we learn to practice the Golden Rule globally, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation. . . . What we need in our world is a change of heart and mind to allow compassion to penetrate our thinking.”
Following her as second keynoter was Afghani activist Sakena Yacoobi, who has helped bring education and health care to more then 350,000 women and young girls in her ravaged country. After receiving an education at a Christian school in the U.S., she returned to Afghanistan and recommitted to Islam, to empower women with the Koran. “Every day there is danger but I know that God is with me,” Ms. Yacoobi said, to thunderous applause.
The acknowledgment of love’s fervor reached a climatic note on Valentine’s Day morning of the conference when the featured speaker, Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, the largest retreat center in America, declared, “It was a sense of calling to come to this city, on this day, at this time. . . . Your tender heart—this is what is going to save our world,” she urged the audience. “No matter what you do in the world, you can make a difference with your heart,” Ms. Lesser concluded.
Camaraderie of the heart joined women throughout the rest of the day as they spilled over the cathedral grounds, voicing their spiritual renewal and experiencing transformation in the workshops.
At the closing plenary, International Buddhist Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg settled the bountiful energy within the gathering by asking the audience to breathe “gently like a butterfly resting on a flower.” Then, keynoter the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, a life-long advocate of racial justice who had served as presidential election monitor for Nelson Mandela, challenged the gathering to accept that love can be risky and that right choices require risks, as Sakena Yacoobi had taken. “It is the choices we make that define who we are … The beloved community may not come in my time, but it is worth the struggle,” Ms. Campbell concluded.
-- Anne Carson is a photojournalist based in Southern Maryland where she is a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St. Mary’s County.