by Adelaide Woodcook (with Maridel Bowes)
I was a skinny, 21 year-old redhead when my minister husband of one week carried me over the threshold of our first home on Long Island, New York. With five rooms on the back of the church and a salary of $15 a week, I couldn’t imagine greater happiness.
My Goal in Life
Throughout my childhood, I had watched the pastors’ wives in awe as they sat at the end of the second pew, beaming support to their husbands. Since the extreme restrictions of my religious training had made the outside world foreign to me, my singular goal was to be one of them. Then I would be loved by my husband and adored by the people he served. I would be special. And to that end, I learned to play the piano by the time I left for college.
So this long-awaited day in June of 1942 was a dream come true. I knew who I was. I had a special identity. I was a pastor’s wife.
It wasn’t long, however, before a cloud descended upon my new world: depression. It came briefly at first, but like many unwanted visitors, stayed longer each time. Again and again, it captured and then released me. I never knew what brought it on or what made it vanish. I had grown up captive to the prevailing darkness of my mother’s radical legalism. In our home, anything that was enjoyable was suspect of evil and sin. My sister and I languished under her weapons: fear, guilt, and punishment. Our only contact with the outside world was school attendance, conversations with a neighbor couple, and friendship with one playmate. Anything beyond that was forbidden.
Imprisoned by Faulty Church Teachings
Now, as a pastor’s wife, I was a prisoner again, still under the control of something greater than myself. Our church’s doctrine taught that it was sinful to be angry, jealous, or fearful; and I knew depression was part of that world of forbidden feelings. In the back of my mind rumbled words that my pastor’s wife back home had written to me. “If your husband fails, it will be your fault.” I concluded not only that there was something wrong with me, but feared I would be the cause of my husband’s failure.
A lack of spiritual commitment was the only way I could explain my problem, and so I redoubled my efforts of prayer, Bible reading, and rededication to my role as a pastor’s wife. The truth is, I was suited to it: outgoing, friendly, hard-working and enthusiastic. Just as I’d imagined, the people of the church did adore me, but no matter how much I drank in their love, the depression returned.
Four years later, we moved from Long Island to the metropolis of Cleveland, Ohio. I had hope that that the challenge and excitement of this larger pastorate would free me from the alien force that stalked me, pouncing when I least expected. My anguish was compounded by the fact that I dared not tell anyone. But here, in this new locale, there was no hiding place; and in fact, my malady worsened. Often I would cry into the dark void of the night, asking God for peace— pleading to know what was missing.
Out of desperation, I even found the courage to ask someone about it. The speaker for our ministers’ wives conclave was a woman I deeply admired, and since she was staying the night in our home, I broached the subject with her. Her response echoed my conclusion of spiritual deficiency, and signaled something more: I was on my own with this.
I continued to plead with God for help as the depression thrust itself in and out of my life.
Across the next thirty years of ministry, in the midst of outer success and inner longing, my resolve to find answers deepened. And slowly, the answer began emerging, piece by piece. Each piece was a part of myself—one that I’d been taught to reject, but was now being asked to reclaim. These I call my four keys of consciousness.
My Four Keys to Consciousness
Feelings. Starting with my depression and its attendant fear, my feelings were trying to put me back in touch with myself. When my daughter was very young, she would ask me, “What’s wrong, Mommy?” in response to my frequent and heavy sighs. But I was unaware even of the sighing, and would cheerfully reply, “Nothing, honey. Mommy’s fine!” Such was the denial.
It was a long process to reconnect with my real feelings, but once I did, depression was no longer my master. For example, one day en route home from lunch with friends, I was suddenly depressed, but I was learning to look inside and be honest with myself. “Oh, God, I’m jealous!” I cried aloud, realizing that their glowing account of a recent retreat speaker had brought up my own insecurity as a speaker. And with this emotional truth exposed, my depression vanished. In claiming my “forbidden” feelings, I learned to reclaim a critical part of myself.
Authors. Books are another key to consciousness for me, becoming the perfect friend for my need. In our fourth church, when I was in my forties, I taught a college Sunday School class. One of my students recommended a book called, The Psychology of Jesus Christ and Mental Health, by Raymond Cramer. It was the book I’d been longing for all those years, but didn’t know existed. “Spiritual and psychological health go hand in hand,” he reasoned. Everything rang true, and in a bold act of gratitude, I set aside the prescribed Sunday School lesson and taught the Beatitudes from this book. The response of my students told me that what I’d been searching for found resonance in their hearts as well.
Some years later, I was teaching a popular course on Christian marriage which centered on the principle of submission to one’s husband. You may have heard of these seminars, which were based on Marabel Morgan’s 1974 book, The Total Woman, which was a media sensation. In my heart, I didn’t really relate to its message, but it was my one outlet for teaching at the time, and I told myself that other things about it were worthwhile.
After leading one of these workshops in Berkeley, California a woman (whom I recently found out had been Anne Eggebroten) came up to me and presented me with a book. It was All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation by Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty. “A liberated Christian woman is not content to settle without thought into the restricting pattern society expects of its members who happen to have been born female,” the introduction said. “She is free to know herself, be herself, and develop herself in her own special way, creatively using to the full her intellect and talents.”
I couldn’t stop reading. Nor could I continue teaching the Total Woman workshops. Both of these books are still in my library today, along with a few other gems that met me at the edge of my awareness and ushered me further down the road of changed thinking.
Friendships. A third key to my evolving consciousness was friendship. During our years in the ministry, the only friends my husband and I had were other ministers and their wives; but because this was a migrating profession, the friendships inevitably became long distance ones. As a minister’s wife, there were also prohibitions about becoming too close to a parishioner.
But early in our second church, God found a way around that for me by bringing a single woman into my life. No one seemed to care that this young doctor was my friend. Jean had been raised in our conservative denomination, but was not encumbered by its rules. If something didn’t make sense to her, she followed her own heart on the matter. While I didn’t dare be vulnerable with her in those days, she provided me with a window of freedom— a glimpse of what it meant to live in relationship with God instead of in fear of Him. Through her, my world was broadened by travel, classical music, and visits to beautiful restaurants. Still my friend today, Jean was a precursor to the kind of full-fledged friendships that emerged once we’d left the ministry. My friendships of the last thirty years have nourished my soul and continue to open my consciousness to all that I am.
Guidance. My fourth key is a dependence on God for guidance. As a very young child, I had a visitation of angels at my crib. I never forgot it, and in fact, still experience it as if it happened yesterday. What I didn’t understand was that this fleeting brightness was a palpable message that there was more to this life than what I saw around me.
Even throughout my years of wrestling, I knew there was something more that could be trusted. That core knowing has grown into an experience of guidance by which I now live. I wasn’t fully conscious of it until I was in my late thirties. Riding through the college campus of Ball State Teacher’s College, I received a message to return to school. I felt the draw, but couldn’t imagine how I could do that as the mother of two children and the minister’s wife of a large congregation. But when the Spirit placed a woman in my life whose primary message to me was “If I can do it, you can do it,” I had to listen. She ran a bed and breakfast, cared for her elderly mother, and had to commute 40 miles each way. She was right. If she could do it with all those responsibilities, I could, too.
Finishing college and then getting my master’s degree eventually led to teaching Elementary Education courses at the college level—one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. After that, I learned to recognize and trust the unerring guidance of Spirit. Time and time again, I have been led to step past the boundaries of old consciousness, old thinking, and perceived limitations in order to be more whole.
Peace and Joy
At 88 years of age, I am the happiest I have ever been. A great part of my joy is the knowing that my open, questioning heart was the key to receiving the answers I sought—that God and I were, and continue to be, co-creators of my life. My journey into consciousness continues every day, and for that I am eternally grateful.
© 2009 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, volume 32, number 4, Winter (January-March 2009)