(Essay 1) Returning Home with Mago, the Great Goddess, from East Asia by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang

Sotdae, symbolizes Mago Triad
Sotdae (솟대), pole that symbolizes the Mago Triad

[Author’s Note: This essay was first published in Trivia, Voices of Feminism, Issue 6, September 2007.]

I come from Korea. When I say I came from Korea, I do not mean “Korea” in a nationalistic sense. Nationalism, reinforced by international politics as a cardinal rule of the global community, precludes the agency of women; it is a game of the patriarchal controllers. When I say I am Korean, I mean I am a Magoist Korean, a gynocentric Korean. My Korean identity refers to my cultural and historical root. Fortunately, I have found my Korean gynocentric root in the tradition of Mago, the Great Goddess, from East Asia.1

Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, and Gloria Anzaldúa reiterated that they have no country, but the whole world is their country. I now join them in saying that I have no country because the whole world is my country. This is supra-nationalism. It is also the principle of symbiosis, which is shared by my foremothers from East Asia who passed down the mythos of Magoism throughout generations. I am a Magoist, and Magoists are supra-nationalists and symbiosists.

Beginning Steps of My Home-coming Journey

I had a rough start in my first year of university. Like other university students in Korea in the early 1980s, I projected my sense of misery onto a political situation. I participated in student demonstrations and social study groups. My sense of crisis only increased, however, as time went by. I was like a universe that was out of balance. Life looked too big to handle. To live felt like walking in a burning hell. One day the thought that my life was not worth living consumed me. Then I said to myself, “OK, I am dead. However, life continues. Now can I live as another person in the ebb and flow of people?” This spared me from killing myself. On a winter day, one friend took me to a bible study group. There, I plunged myself into the Catholic charismatic movement. Out of an excruciating mental pain, I picked my life’s last card and gave it to the belief of Jesus Christ. All my heart’s desires were disbanded for God. Loving God saved me from my existential pain. I thought all my life problems were solved once and for all in Christianity. I was nineteen years old.

I had two dreams in my early twenties. The first was to become a cross-cultural missionary and the other to study subjects in the humanities – not that I did not like my chemistry major but I loved humanities subjects more. I immersed myself in reading and thinking about literature, philosophy, sociology, and art history. It was clear to me that I would have thrived if I had changed my major, but the rigid school policy required me to take the entrance exam once again. I was already a committed Christian, and pursuing an academic career did not seem important. So I abandoned my desire to become an academic, though my love for learning never died. Now I clung to the idea of becoming a cross-cultural missionary. The biblical story of Abraham, who was told by God to leave his familiar world and live in the new land that God commended, felt like no ordinary story to me. Upon reading or hearing it, my heart beat loudly. I was scared, but knew that I had to follow my heart’s inclination to try the call of Abraham.

For a long time, I thought my call to become an overseas missionary originated in my Christian belief. Only after learning that Magoist missionaries were dispatched to the peoples of the world to remind them of the Origin of Mago in pre-patriarchal times, did I realize that it came from my Magoist Korean heritage.

Upon learning about Maryknoll Sisters, a U.S.-based catholic women’s overseas missionary congregation, I was fascinated by their missionary spirit. It did not take long to know my heart’s desire to become one of them. Many of them I knew were great missionaries who went to unknown lands and befriended the poor. They adopted the language and culture of the people with whom they lived. I relished phrases like “Stay when you are needed; leave when you are wanted.” I watched myself in order to love, but not to be attached to what I loved. I excelled in my self-training in contemplation and meditation. Soon I ardently aspired to become an advanced mystic. I spent hours upon hours praying, reading, and reflecting. The Catholic tradition of spirituality welcomed me. The pleasure I took in reading and practicing a multitude of meditation methods was everything that I owned. Mystics and hermits lured me into wilderness. I was almost ready to try out the life of a cloistered nun. For those four years of waiting for my membership approval from the headquarters of Maryknoll Sisters, I rehearsed my missionary journey into an unknown land over and over again in my mind.

My years spent with Maryknoll Sisters in New York granted me the possibility of seeing what a women’s community could be in its idealism. The first year was so difficult that I thought I was not cut out to be a Maryknoll missionary, but from the second year on, I began to befriend friends who supported me. Meanwhile, my Korean perspective was gradually transformed into a cosmopolitan one. In fact, Maryknoll Sisters still occupy a special place in my heart. I have not yet found another organization or place where cross-cultural experiences are spontaneously and intimately shared by women. My peers, especially, who came from literally everywhere — Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America — opened my eyes to different ways of thinking, doing, and being. Just living in community with them gave me a great deal of hands-on knowledge about other peoples and their cultures.

Maryknollers were like wanderers. I was constantly on the road for nearly eight years, living, working, and learning in Korea, the U.S., and the Philippines. As an aspirant, I had my first exposure to Maryknoll life on a remote southern island in Korea for six months. This was a sort of ideal missionary life with fishing and farming villagers, mostly women. Then I was exposed to an urban missionary community, in Seongnam City, Korea, for two years or so on and off. I lived my first two years as a member of Maryknoll Sisters in an inner-city neighborhood of Newburgh, New York, and another year in Maryknoll, New York. Then, while based in Manila, I had short-term experiences in several places from the far north down to the far south of the Philippines. Although my stay in the Philippines lasted only about a year and three months, I traveled frequently during this time. Toward the end of my stay in the Philippines, I took a three-month program led by Sr. Mary John Mananzan, where women from all parts of the world came to learn about women and society. This gave me a sort of introduction to Asian women’s issues. In retrospect, this was a special time of blessing for me. My Maryknoll experience of being constantly on the road has allowed me to visit life’s hidden valleys where otherworldly treasures are buried. I am deeply thankful for those who shared their friendship with me along the way, especially people in the Philippines. I know that I left my heart there with the people to whom I was sent.

During my formation period, I attended seminary courses and worked part-time in inner-city centers. Female friendships nourished me. Good women friends radiated like jewels. All sorts of interest groups and workshops were open for members. Life looked colorful, offering me many options for the first time. I began to paint watercolors and continued to write poetry. I was happy and thrived among like-minded women. I was exploring many possibilities of what life could be. So it was very difficult when I had to move on to my mission phase. Maryknoll Sisters celebrated a mission-sending in a great fashion with rituals and ceremonies, but as I said good-bye at the airport to the group of friends who were seeing me off to the Philippines, I shed uncontrollable tears. I did not know then that my tears were for my final good-bye to my Christian idealism.

I had made my vows after two years of training. However, looking back on it, this was not a joyous event; on the contrary, I was falling apart due to unknown causes. Dreadful night dreams were repeated. So I sought out ways to work with my dreams. I learned that dreams are the surest guide if we know how to read them. A cloister Sister met me for counseling on a weekly basis for a year or so. I scrutinized myself inside out and upside down to find something that I needed to fix. I was determined to put an end to the feeling of restlessness that had followed me along the way. I searched all possibilities that might have affected me, including my family relationships, childhood, or anything that might surface in my consciousness. My soul was dug up, but the feeling of restlessness was still there with me.

En route to the Philippines, I stopped in Korea to stay with my family for about three months. My family, as well as several Maryknoll Sisters, met me at the airport. As I approached my mother, she said no word but touched my face and my arms, and hugged me with tears. Everyone welcomed me warmly. I was home again but did not, in my heart, feel at home. I was deeply disturbed by something that I could not name. Feeling my anger amidst my family reunion caused me much pain and guilt, knowing how my parents had sacrificed themselves in order to raise and educate me.

In the Philippines, where I lived as a Maryknoll Sister, I was disillusioned about christianity. For the two months of the orientation period, I visited rigorous ministries in remote places. I soon became exhausted, not only physically but psychologically. The “Third World” became real to me. When I saw the indigent of the Philippines, then I knew my own experience of poverty was not really of poverty, just a little inconvenience. I got sick from food and water that I drank in the houses of people whom I visited. A strong rotten smell nauseated me whenever I passed by the alley where poor people sold their meat, fish, and fruit. The unbridgeable gap that I found between the people and myself broke my heart. My feelings of guilt, frustration, and anger could find no ventilation. I was saddened when a burglar broke into the house overnight and took small house items. I was speechless when I visited people who lived in a garbage incineration site and lived on trash. My heart ached when I saw an entire family living out of a small cart on a street. Begging children followed me when I got off a bus in new places. Hundreds of girls went to the city and became prostitutes. I saw how people were caught in tribal wars and government raids against communists. I saw women used as pawns in the rivalry between the church and the government on the issue of abortion. I saw the wealth of catholic organizations. What I saw is beyond description. I could not even cry. I was in shock, torn by the two worlds – the rich, the west, and the religious on the one side; and the poor, the indigenous, and the lay people on the other side. Shattered pieces of a jar spoke of my heart, as I found them under my feet on my desperate prayer-walk to a grove.

When I had entered Maryknoll three years before, I’d been enchanted by the idea of going to a Latin American country for mission, and studied Latin America for nearly two years. During that time, however, I’d also become aware of my identity as an Asian. So I’d turned my eyes to an Asian country, and there were the Philippines. The Philippines were similar to many countries in Latin America, sharing a history of colonization by Spain and recent U.S. influence.

I thought I had seen poverty where I volunteered to help out the urban poor in New York. I thought I had seen poverty in the remote island of Haido, Korea, where I had been first exposed to the life of Maryknoll Sisters. I could not compare any of this to what I saw in the Philippines. I knew that poverty was not confined to the poor of the Philippines – spending three years in Maryknoll, preparing for mission work, had made it clear that the rest of the so-called Third World was not very different from what I saw. I may not be wrong to say that two-thirds of the global population live in poverty. Poverty is not just the problem of poverty alone. Violence goes with it, and evil thrives in the climate of violence.

I heard the cry of the people and the cry of the environment. I also saw how western colonial power damaged the people of the Philippines. Foremost, I saw how christianity ruled over people. I could no longer reconcile my experience with my christian beliefs and my membership in Maryknoll Sisters, the U.S.-based congregation. It became clear to me that the god to whom I had been praying was nothing more than a patriarchal projection that served western colonialist hegemony. I also found no hope in the leadership of western powers. I came to realize that christian and western thought leads nowhere but to division and confusion. I could not imagine happiness and joy at the end of this track of thought, not for myself nor for humanity as a whole. In short, I saw the ugly face of patriarchy and had to disassociate myself from it for my survival.

I came back to Korea and soon withdrew from Maryknoll Sisters. I was ready to say good-bye to the Christian beliefs that I once held. However, my missionary dream died hard. It was almost everything to me. Ceaseless tears welled up from the depth of my being for many months. These tears were not those of sorrow but of cleansing and healing. I stayed firm and began to claim my own power. I was all alone but was not afraid. I finally felt at peace with myself. I was soaring from within, and the whole world was there for me.

Deep down inside, I knew I had to come back to Korea to establish my relationship with my mother. My mother was feeling deprived of her mother’s right to me by her mother-in-law. I had loved my grandmother in the place of my mother all my life until then. I did not know that the more I expressed my affection for my grandmother, the more my mother was hurt. My grandmother had been widowed at a young age, and I do not know how old I was when she took me from my mother’s bosom and raised me as if I were her own child – maybe when my mother was pregnant with my brother even before I reached my first birthday. Whatever the specific circumstances, however, it became clear to me, as my feminist consciousness grew, that Confucian culture set up women against each other. In my case, I did not have a chance to love my own mother, and that severed relation caused problems in my psychology. It was like a thorn inside my soul that pained me whatever I did. So when I returned home, I made efforts to connect with my mother for the first time in my life. And it was a time of healing for both of us.

Mary Daly’s books came to me providentially. Beyond God the Father literally fell into my hands as I was browsing books at the small library of the women’s center in the Philippines. I do not know which page it was that I started reading. But once my eyes were set on a page, they were glued to the next. After returning to Korea, I continued on reading Gyn-Ecology and Outercourse. For about three years, I was intensely engaged in Daly’s books. I translated Beyond God the Father and The Church and the Second Sex and published them in Korean. I survived by teaching English and thrived by seeking what I had longed to seek. I nurtured myself by taking up various art and exercise classes. I continued to write poetry for those years.

Mary Daly’s thought opened a new reality for me. With her books, I came alive. I knew what she meant by ontological hope. Her books showed me a way to a trans-patriarchal voyage. I saw the root of the problem, patriarchy, and de-educated myself away from it. After I severed my involvement from Christianity, I did not want to invest in patriarchal institutions as a whole. I was not afraid of loneliness. On the contrary, I jolted into the joy of being alive. This was another level of happiness. I was becoming a self-defined womyn.

I first sent Mary a letter saying that I wanted to translate her books into Korean. Luckily, I received a reply from her soon after. Then one day I felt a strong urge to speak with her. So I called her. I do not remember the details of our conversation. It must have been night in her time. What I remember vividly is that I had a visual image of a large star dashing toward a small star at tremendous speed. Both were fire balls. I think that we spoke for quite a long time. I stayed awake all night as if struck by a ray of sunlight. The light/power sustained me for many hours that I did not know. I was lying in my bed, doing nothing and thinking nothing until I regained my ordinary consciousness.

I came back to the U.S. and began graduate studies in Women’s Studies in Religion. I returned to my love of study, nothing could interrupt it, and I graduated with a Ph.D. degree in 2005. Ten years have now passed since I returned to the U.S. for the second time.

My story of completing my doctoral degree is in no way monotonous. Around 1999, I was given a book called the Budoji (Epic of the Emblem City) by a Korean scholar. However casual this event may have been, it flung open the door to my encounter with Mago, my ancestors’ Goddess. Since then, the steps of my home-coming journey have become faster and more focused. I see everything – myself, feminism, history, and human destiny – differently in Magoism. And it feels right to me.

(To be continue in Part 2).

Read Meet Mago Contributor Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, Ph.D.