Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Catholicism, war and violence | 2 Comments
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As I was going through stacks of  articles and reviews that I’ve published in years past, I came across this one, written soon after 9/11 and published in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. I lived in Berkeley, California at the time. I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and unfortunately, much of it can be applied to this Christmas as well, with different men from the East–and the West–bearing new but no less grief-laden gifts.

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One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. The next issue of one publication I write for is coming out in December, so the editor wishes I would write something about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But today is October 11, 2001, and everywhere I turn I find bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.

In this conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a secular construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but all those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a while, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.

Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story. In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter. John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight” (19:38-39).

A week or so after the September 11 attacks, the writer Karen Armstrong had a conversation about Islam with NPR’s Terry Gross. At the end of the interview Gross asked Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience. Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation. If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer. We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.

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“American Catholic” is a complex term, amalgamated from the optimism of America’s Enlightenment origins and the suffering of immigrant Catholicism. Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three. I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.

In recent years Catholic feminists have joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross for Christianity, and particularly for women. In Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that the cross can be of no further use for women because it leads them to identify with victimization and self-sacrifice.

In Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects, as do Brown and Parker, the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin. But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross. For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves. In my own research, I find that some American Catholics, at least, know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears. Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.

In many respects, I am a New Yorker. My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city. As an adult, I loved every minute of the decade I lived in New York, identifying with its energy—at last I was someplace where being in a hurry isn’t a failing! —and relishing the sense that everything I could want was a subway ride away. When I try to explain my perpetual homesickness to my California colleagues, they who are forever on their way to the redwoods or the Pacific, I invariably speak of my longing for skyscrapers, the ones in Philadelphia, but even more, those in Manhattan.

The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility. I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends. But like a lot of other Americans, I didn’t pay enough attention to the first bombing of those towers in 1993. When I called the Windows on the World the following year, to see about reserving space for my wedding dinner, I got a tape announcing that due to the recent terrorist attack, the restaurant was closed.

Today when I look at photographs of what remains of the World Trade Center, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree at all. The shards of building that are left standing look to me a lot more like a severe, modernist crucifix with jagged ribs piercing the sky. I imagine they won’t look that way for long, though. Given the wealth and arrogance of this country, skyscrapers will probably rise again on that bombed Golgotha-like landscape. And who knows? I may even come to love them. But I will never love them as optimistically as I did their predecessors. .

Even this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, it is likely that a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols. Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation. But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something our recent history has taught us all too well:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

Perhaps this year we will be better able than we have been in the past to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.

 

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Vatican Report on U.S. Sisters

December 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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For days now, friends and colleagues have been awaiting with excitement the report on U.S. Catholic sisters that the Vatican Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) issued this morning. Based on an Apostolic Visitation of active (non-cloistered) congregations of sisters that began in 2008, this report has been anticipated since at least 2012. Hopes were high that it would be positive and appreciative (unlike the separate doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of 2012) because it was issued under the current pope, not Benedict XVI, who authorized the Visitation.

Most would agree that the outcome is much better than was initially feared. A headline in Crux, in the Boston Globe, reads “Vatican probe ends with an olive branch for American nuns.” The National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report acknowledges the report’s “roundly positive, even laudatory, tone towards (the sisters’) life and work,” while also mentioning several “couched but barbed criticisms” of them. (But the British Guardian calls the report a “mild rebuke.”) A sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I admire enormously for her decades of relentless social justice advocacy said she would be grateful for a positive report so that sisters could stop worrying and get back to the work they were called to do.

I, too, am grateful that the report is as positive as it is. I am especially moved by the section on finances,  reminding readers of the difficult financial situation of many women’s congregations and that many sisters worked for nothing. God willing, at the end of the report, readers will express their gratitude by getting out their checkbooks. I also appreciate the report’s acknowledgment that the decline in the number of Catholic sisters in recent years was not the result of their secular life-styles, but in part at least, because the huge increase in the number of sisters in the middle of the twentieth century was an historical anomaly.

Nonetheless, I feel the need to make a few points.

First of all, the report describes the visitations as “sister to sister” undertakings. And it is true that a nun, Mother Mary Clare Millea, supervised the entire (massive) effort, and a “core team” of other sisters did the actual work of visiting and interviewing other sisters in their four hundred-some groups across the U.S. It is worth remembering, however, that Mother Mary Clare  reported to the entirely male CICLSAL leadership, and that she herself was part of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the more conservative organization of U.S. sisters that  split off from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)in 1992. It would be interesting to know the percentage of “core team” sister/interviewers who also came from congregations in the CMSWR.

I also have real problems with the final  paragraphs of the report, beginning with the  expression of hope that the “feminine genius” of more women, including competent women religious, will be “actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding the ‘possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.'” I will spare you my thoughts about the “feminine genius” and note only that the phrase “actively involved in…dialogue…about the possible role…” is  scandalously indirect and ambivalent. Possible roles?

This paragraph is followed by the statement that the Apostolic Visitation modeled its approach on the Gospel encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, “one a virgin and the other married but barren,” who overcame fear and uncertainty to embrace their roles in God’s plan. Myself, I would have preferred a description of these extremely significant women in light of something besides, or at least along with, their reproductive status. I would have also been grateful if the final paragraph described women, especially women religious, as actually doing something, instead of (or along with) the church celebrating “the great things that God does for them” and Mary herself “constantly contemplating the work of God.”

Some U.S. sisters may object to my focusing on these details; the book about the process, Power of Sisterhoodand the report itself stress the unity that resulted from the Apostolic Visitation; some sisters also express hope for better relations between the LCWR and the CMSWR.

But it’s crucial to recognize that the report actually does nothing to change the governance structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The church is an absolute monarchy, and unlike other monarchies, only men get crowned. If a pope dies, there’s no telling what his successor will do, as some of us learned to our dismay after the deaths of Pope John XXII, and, to some extent, Pope Paul VI. (This is particularly amusing in a religious organization given to saying “As the church has always taught.”) Pope Francis is a big improvement over his two predecessors, particularly because of  his stress on the poor, though the possibility that the church’s teaching on women might actually contribute to their poverty seems to elude him.

All this notwithstanding, Pope Francis is an old man. And if he dies, God knows what position his successor will hold, on women and a lot of other things. The current heads of the  Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are much more appreciative of  U.S. Catholic sisters than Cardinal Franc Rodé was. Will their successors be? Until the Catholic church ordains women priests and bishops, appoints them cardinals, and elects them pope, its treatment of Catholic women, including and especially nuns, is at the least unpredictable. As things are, the only role allotted to women by the institutional church is to pray that the pope lives a long time and that the bishops and cardinals he names will be more enlightened on questions of gender and sexuality than he is.

 

Awaiting that Sliver of Light

December 13, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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Well, you haven’t heard from me for a while. I owe you an apology, or at least an explanation.

As I wrote in an earlier post, last spring our family–my husband and me, his mother, and by association, his kids and grandkids, went on an illness roller-coaster ride. In April, Keith contracted pneumonia, during the diagnosis of which he was discovered to have a “mass” in his kidney, which turned out to be a malignancy, which was removed in June. Before he had recovered from the surgery, his 92-year-old mother down in Clearwater almost died, but by September Betty was back in her independent living home. We went on vacation. I wrote a blog post about the Synod on the Family.

When we came home, the urologist who did Keith’s surgery called to say he also had an elevated PSA (prostate specific antigen) and would have to have an MRI. Meantime, Keith’s Mom got quite sick again, and before long, was moved from the hospital to a hospice facility. One morning toward the end of October, the doctor called to say that Keith had a “nodule” on his prostate, and would have to have a biopsy. That afternoon, the hospice called to say his mother had died. (Seriously!). So we flew down to Clearwater for Keith to do the funeral. We then ran around gathering the various estate papers–we’re still messing with them–and flew back to New York just in time for the biopsy. Later that week we learned that Keith has prostate cancer; the surgery to remove his prostate is scheduled for early January.

This second cancer episode in six months seems just to be extremely bad luck, not a metastasis of the kidney cancer. And the doctor believes the cancer has not spread beyond the prostate, so once again, we seem to have dodged a bullet. But we are not exactly feeling grateful yet. The whole thing has been just too much.

Years ago, at the height of my feminist activist phase, each December women I knew celebrated the end of the longest dark nights and the beginning of the lengthening of daylight, the winter solstice. Some of them still do. Myself, I never really took to it; seemed kind of romantic, which, if you read this blog very much, you realize I’m not. This year, though, I am waiting eagerly for December 21, for that first new sliver of light that points toward brighter days ahead.

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