“The Yeah, Yeah Experience” or “Communion Sweet from Heart to Heart”

By Marion Taylor
Marion Wycliff May3 (2 of 42) rs

In my first year of graduate studies at Yale University, I was asked to be a teaching assistant in a course that allowed for “the yeah, yeah experience” to arise. (The “yeah, yeah experience” is the term given to describe the feeling women have when we realize how much we have in common with other women.) I had never been in a class that deliberately aimed to cultivate such empathy before, but I soon realized that doing so was an effective way of allowing students to share ideas and experiences that encouraged them to be all that God called them to be.

To me, it modelled what the 18th-century Anglican writer Hannah More described in her poem about the activities of the Blue Stockings, groups of like-minded women (and sometimes, invited men) who met together to cultivate their intellects and encourage one another to publish. These little societies became known as “The Bas Bleu.” In her poem of the same title, More used a variety of images to describe what happened when “enlightened spirits” shared their ideas:

Enlightened spirits! you, who know
What charms from polish’d converse flow,
Speak, for you can, the pure delight
When kindling sympathies unite:
When correspondent tastes impart
Communion sweet from heart to heart . . .
In taste, in learning, wit, or science,
Still kindled souls demand alliance:
Each in each other’s joys to find
The image answering to his mind.
But sparks electric only strike
On souls electrical alike;
The flash of Intellect expires
Unless it meets congenial fires. (lines 348–365)

Communion sweet

The long-silenced voices and forgotten writings of women on Scripture and theology that are being recovered today suggest that most of these daring women were unaware of their foremothers who shared their “electric” souls. Highly educated, articulate, and influential French reform-minded women Marie Dentière (c.1495–1561) and Queen Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549) were exceptional; they were able to experience “sweet communion” through the exchange of letters, and perhaps also in person.

Marie Dentière (c.1495–1561) reached out to kindle “congenial fires” with Marguerite de Navarre and others in her anonymously published A Very Useful Epistle made and composed by a Christian Woman of Tournai sent to the Queen of Navarre Sister of the King of France, Against the Turks, Jews, Infidels, False Christians, Anabaptists, and Lutherans (1539). Anticipating criticism from those who think women should not be preaching with their pens, Dentière acknowledged the classic Pauline silencing text of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 before boldly defending women’s right to interpret and teach the Bible: “For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public and congregations and churches, We are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.” [Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre and Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin, ed. and trans. Mary B. McKinley, p. 53]

To support her argument, Dentière cited examples of good, faithful, and wise women in Scripture as well as female leaders, preachers, evangelists, and preachers:  

Sarah and Rebecca . . . The mother of Moses . . . And Deborah, who judged the people of Israel in the time of the Judges. . . . What wisdom had the Queen of Sheba, who is not only named in the Old Testament, but who Jesus dared to name among the other sages!  . . . What woman was a greater preacher than the Samaritan woman, who was not ashamed to preach Jesus and his word, confessing him openly before everyone? . . . Who can boast of having had the first manifestation of the great mystery of the resurrection of Jesus, if not Mary Magdalene, . . . and the other women, to whom, rather than to men, [Jesus] had earlier declared himself through his angel and commanded them to tell, preach, and declare it to others? [54–55]

Near the end of her letter, Dentière encouraged the Queen not to listen to those who assume that women are made only “to give pleasure, as is our custom, to do our work, spinning on the distaff, [and to] live as women before us did.”[79] Instead, Dentière wrote, Margueriteand other readers should fully embrace Paul’s teachings about the equality of all men and women before God:

Are we not one in the Lord? In whose name we are baptized? . . . There is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, before God, no person is an exception. We are all one in Jesus Christ. There is no male or female, nor servant or freeman. [79]

Fully embracing the call

Marguerite did embrace the call to use all her talents and the equality and freedom she found in Christ. She boldly engaged in contemporary theological debates. She generously supported individual reformers and their writings and various social justice and educational projects. Like Dentière, she put pen to paper and authored theological works and works of biblical interpretation, including a poetic commentary on the battle between the flesh and spirit that is based on Romans 7–8. Marguerite de Navarre’s extensive literary corpus includes over a thousand letters to family, friends, clergy, and political figures; plays that explore a variety of biblical, theological, and philosophical themes, including male-female relations; and both short and epic-length poems that comment on biblical, theological, comedic, and historical subjects.[1] Her better-known works have finally been incorporated into the canon of French literature and theologians and biblical scholars are beginning to recognize the value of both these women’s theological and biblical reflections.

Because the voices of women like Marie Dentière and Marguerite de Navarre were quickly silenced in the early years of the Reformation, subsequent generations were deprived. For too long the flash of Dentière’s and de Navarre’s intellectual fires was forgotten. For too long their call to women and men to fully embrace their God-given gifts—even if that meant challenging ecclesial and cultural expectations about women’s roles—was unheard.

Thankfully, their voices can now speak again and produce that “communion sweet from heart to heart.”    

[1] Patricia F. Cholakian and Rouben C. Cholakian, Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 5. See Katharina M. Wilson’s discussion of women using such genres as sonnets, chansons, elegies, spiritual dialogues, mystical writings, hagiographic vitae, and homilies when they wrote about religious topics in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), xii.