When you think of Jane Fonda, you think Oscar-winning actor, controversial anti-war crusader, feminist, activist, married three times to alpha men, divorced three times from same, and, of course, the legendary workout videos which gave America the equally legendary “buttock tucks.”
You may also know that Fonda at 78, defying a Hollywood norm, is still acting full-time. She’s starring now in the Netflix hit “Grace and Frankie” and was nominated for a Golden Globe award in the new movie, “Youth.”
Here’s what you may not know about Fonda: Defying another Hollywood norm, she’s a Jesus-lover on an intense spiritual quest in that most secular of secular worlds. And hers is a particularly unusual quest. Call it Christianity with an asterisk.
Beginning to pray “was like being hooked up to the power of mystery that had been leading me,” Fonda has written. “It wasn’t so much a learning about the existence of God, because learning implies intellect. It was more of an experiencing of his presence, a psychic lucidity that was allowing me to access something beyond consciousness.”
It was about a “rush of intuition that seems to permeate our entire being. That is what Jesus meant when he said God is within us.”
Which is what Jesus did say, to cite just one place, John 15: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Divine in-dwelling is also a central theme of the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries, the great Catholic mystics from St. Ignatius to Catherine of Siena, the late monk Thomas Merton, the famed contemporary monk Thomas Keating, and the feminist nun Joan Chittister, with whom Fonda has studied and prayed.
Okay, it may seem hard to square all this with a glamorous star who did such a fantastic job in Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” Before a packed movie theater last Sunday night in Brookline, a town next to Boston, she had the audience in stitches over her tips on old-age sex and her dead-on imitation of the late, great Katharine Hepburn, her co-star in “On Golden Pond.”
But I had a chance to interview Fonda that same night and ask about her late-in-life conversion and her now “powerful sense of the divine presence” guiding her.
At first she balked. “In Hollywood, only my Jewish friends went to temple. I didn’t have any friends who went to church.” Besides, she said, “it’s boring” to talk about faith.
And it can be, even believer-to-believer, no matter its singular ecstasies.
Yet there was nothing boring about listening to this superstar describe her born-again moment during the sad time after she left, as she put it, “my favorite ex-husband,” CNN founder Ted Turner. She recalled being alone in her daughter’s home and feeling, in her suffering, “myself becoming whole. And I just knew,” she said. “This is what we are meant to do in our human lifetimes, to become whole. This is what God wants for us.”
That was more than a decade ago. She said she still prays and meditates daily and “feels that reverence in my body. I feel faith. I believe in the power of prayer.” She said that sense of wholeness has stayed with her.
Jane Fonda grew up an atheist. She lost her mother to suicide at age 12, and her father, the famed Henry Fonda, thought religion a crutch for the weak, she said. Though Turner had been “saved” seven times (once by Billy Graham), he abandoned his faith and for a time became hostile toward Christianity. Her embrace of it caused one of many schisms in their marriage.
Fonda said she almost abandoned her own faith during a fundamentalist Bible class in Atlanta, where she lived with Turner and where her religious mentors insisted she believe every work of the Bible, literally, or give up on Christianity.
Fonda said this judgment and harshness sent her searching for Christianity with less judgment and more mercy, one that was not socially conservative and exclusionary, authoritarian or patriarchal.
Clearly that means she’s not an evangelical — or a Roman Catholic, either.
“From what I can see, none of this was Jesus’ idea. He did not see women as less than or an afterthought. He taught equality of all in God’s eyes,” she has explained. “And I discovered that alienation from dogma doesn’t have to mean a loss of faith.
“Some will say that because of this, I am not a true Christian. So be it. I believe in the teachings of Jesus and try to practice them in my life. I have found Christians all over the country who feel as I do.”
So have I, actually, and some of them are members of my own Catholic parish.
Hearing Fonda, in fact, reminded me of hearing so many Catholic women of strong faith. Some have given up on the Church because of its stands on women, gays, birth control, abortion, and its patriarchal, top-down management. Some, like Chittister, for example, have remained despite those stands.
Yet it all does raise the question: How will the American Church, already hemorrhaging, ever keep young women raised today with the assumption that they are equal to men and ready to assume the reigns of power? Women raised with the assumption that love is love, whether between husbands and wives or wives and wives?
It’s easy to question or belittle Jane Fonda’s spiritual journey. She’s a superstar who writes advice books and now she’s advising us about the metaphysical. Some still sting over her visiting North Vietnam 40-plus years ago and posing for pictures there at the height of the war, even though she has repeatedly apologized to veterans.
But Jane Fonda knows what she’s talking about. She’s not holier than thou. You read in her work and feel face-to-face the empathy, sincerity, and kindness you feel as well in those who come from a place of grace. There’s a hopefulness, too, particularly about old age.
All those workouts and buttock tucks notwithstanding, Fonda says her body is failing, but her soul is growing, and ascending. “I am a work in progress,” she said. “But I have found that since I have come to feel God within me, I experience less fear — of anything, including death.”