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Visions, voices, and voisinages : contemporary Canadian women’s spiritual autobiographies Aikman, Laurie Kathleen

Abstract

The last thirty years have been a time of considerable change in both Canadian religious life and in Canadian women's lives, as well as in the interrelationships between the two. While Canadian society has undergone a process of increasing secularization, Canadian women have been engaged in a struggle for equal rights within religious and secular institutions. During this time, both prominent and ordinary Canadian women have published, in ever-increasing numbers, autobiographical narratives centred on their experiences of the sacred. This study analyses the relationships between the guiding metaphors, the narrative forms, and the implied readers of sixteen contemporary Canadian women's spiritual autobiographies. The emphasis is on the dialectical negotiations through which these authors come to live in creative tension with their competing identities and loyalties. Spiritual autobiography has received very little attention in Canadian literary criticism. Most studies of the genre equate it with the conversion narrative. However, the history of religious life-narratives is characterized by a diversity of literary forms, of which conversion is only one. If we define spiritual autobiography as a life-narrative with an explicit focus on the individual's relationship with a particular religious group or tradition, or in which the emphasis is on spiritual (as opposed to exclusively material, intellectual, or psychological) concerns, then a number of characteristics of the genre become evident. It is marked primarily by a double vision of the physical and spiritual worlds, by a literary hybridity that combines autobiography and hermeneutics, and by a strong orientation toward its reader. Furthermore, there are many tensions inherent in the genre itself, particularly for contemporary women: between tradition and innovation, between the individual and the community, between private and public identities, between religious and social engagements, between freedom and enclosure, between embodiment and spirituality. The contemporary spiritual autobiographies in this study are divided into four groups of four texts each. The memoirs of Lois Wilson, Mary Jo Leddy, Andrea Richard, and Joanna Manning are narratives of public figures in Canadian churches. These women negotiate between public and private identities, and between religious and social commitments. The personal and introspective autobiographical accounts by Marcelle Brisson, Andree Pilon Quiviger, Celeste Snowber Schroeder, and Micheline Piotte are written by private individuals who focus on their everyday experiences. These women wrestle with the tensions between their realities as embodied beings and their more transcendent spiritual yearnings. Two books of autobiographical fiction by Jovette Marchessault and two works of nature writing by Sharon Butala are narratives by solitary mystics whose spiritual quests seek to reconcile cosmic, natural, and historical perspectives. Finally, four anthologies by women who perceive themselves as being on the margins of Canadian society (First Nations Christian women, women from a low-income neighbourhood, Jewish women, and Muslim women) find the sacred in their relationships with particular communities. However, a lively tension between individual and communal values never ceases to inform their writings. The study concludes with some suggestions for further research into the genre of spiritual autobiography in Canadian literature, as well as a discussion of the implications of the rhetorical strategies of these authors for the teaching of spiritual autobiography in the secular academic context.

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