Remembering Our Dear Carolyn

May 12, 2015 at 4:07 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Professor, author, spiritual guide, radiant friend. Born on March 5, 1930, in Toronto; died on Dec. 24, 2014, in Toronto, following several strokes, aged 84.

Carolyn Gratton, the only child of Eleanor and James Gratton, grew up in Toronto and earned a bachelor of arts in English and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Toronto. A gorgeous young woman and committed Catholic, she might well have spent her life as a devoted wife and mother, or a librarian, or as a member of a vowed community of religious sisters.

But when she was 23 she visited Grailville, a farm and conference centre near Cincinnati, Ohio, and the North American headquarters of the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement. Carolyn attended a summer program on women’s role in society and was so fascinated by the ideas she encountered that she returned in the fall for the Grail’s year-long formation program, which prepared her for deeper participation in Catholic lay leadership. Within three years, she was a member of the Grail’s staff in North America and by the 1960s was leading Grail projects and programs across the United States and Canada. Wherever she went, people fell in love with her: her radiant smile and cracker-jack sense of humour, but especially her profound spiritual wisdom, surprising in a relatively young woman.

These were years of lively intellectual ferment within Catholicism and in Western societies. To deepen her own thinking on the burning questions of the time, she earned a master’s degree in theoretical anthropology in 1967. The life of academic inquiry suited her well, and Carolyn went on for a doctorate in phenomenological psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which she completed in 1975. She then taught at Duquesne’s Institute of Formative Spirituality until the early 1990s.

During her teaching years Carolyn also had a strong impact on spiritual searchers throughout the world, leading ecumenical contemplative retreats and spiritual formation programs in Canada, the United States, Thailand, the Netherlands, Australia, East Africa, and other places. She also published two books and numerous articles aimed at spiritual directors and spiritual seekers. During these years she also served as a mentor to many individuals, myself included. As a result of our conversations with her about spirituality, life choices and faith, we were never the same again.

In the early 1990s, after retiring from teaching, Carolyn moved back to Toronto. She continued to travel abroad, leading spiritual programs for the increasingly ecumenical Grail movement, and other groups. But her main focus was on building Centering Prayer groups throughout Ontario. Centering Prayer is a branch of Contemplative Outreach, a movement founded by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating to spread the practice of contemplative prayer beyond monastery walls. Thanks to her passionate leadership, there are now 45 such groups in Ontario.

Carolyn was extraordinarily gifted in relating to people of all cultures and classes. During a 2005 Grail visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, she was paired at a village meeting with a woman named Efigenia, a barely literate member of the indigenous community. Efigenia came back from their conversation glowing with pride, explaining that the two women had much in common: They were both catechists (something like a Sunday school teacher), she explained.

Carolyn had not mentioned that she held a doctorate, or was a noted professor and author. Instead, she focused on what she and Efigenia had in common – the work of spiritual outreach. This was the remarkable woman whose death elicited messages and memories from people across North America and around the world. We will never forget her.

The author, Grail member Marian Ronan, is Carolyn’s friend of 50 years.

(This article appeared in the “Lives Lived” series in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. It sounds almost as much like the editor as it does like the author!)


May 4, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Well, no photo on that “Crabapple” blog. . Maybe one of the young people will come by some day and show me what I am doing wrong

Our Crabapple Tree

May 4, 2015 at 10:15 am | Posted in Amazon Rainf, Amazon Rainforest | 2 Comments

Well, a couple of weeks ago it was my birthday. Sixty-eight years old. A little hard to take in.

When I was a teen-ager, what I loved best about my birthday was that the crabapple in the backyard  came into blossom then. We had moved to the house with the crabapple tree the summer before I started high school For twelve years previously we had lived in a much smaller stucco post-war “twin” house several miles south of the Philadelphia city line. Four of us–my parents, my grandmother (“Dommie”) and I–shared three tiny bedrooms and one bathroom. Then, when I was seven, my brother was born and he and I shared the smallest of the three rooms until seven years later we moved a few miles south to a four bedroom house, with an extra half bathroom. But what I loved best was the crabapple tree in the backyard, and how it invariably burst into pink blossoms by the time of my birthday on April 18.

After thirty years or so in that house, long after my grandmother had died and my brother Joseph and I were out in the wide, wide world, my parents sold the house and moved to a retirement community a few miles southwest, in Media. The couple who bought the house seemed nice enough, with two little boys. When I was doing my Ph.D. at Temple in the 1990s, I used to drive by the house, on Crum Lynne Rd., on my way to visit my parents (and soon, just my mother) out at Riddle Village.

That was how I discovered that the nice young couple had cut down the crabapple tree and the rose garden next to the house. They had cemented the two areas and put in an above the ground swimming pool and a basketball court. I almost cried..

I do not think of those people with hostility. I’m sure they considered it a good thing to enable their kids to get some exercise, become athletes, whatever. I do think of them as symbols of what human beings–especially human beings with some money to invest–are doing to the crabapple trees, and the Amazon rainforest, the wetlands, and on and on. With the best will in the world, we are destroying not only our own lungs but also the lungs of the planet.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though, or at least a hopeful one. When I was   a seminary professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley from 1999 to 2009, I worked with a lot of wonderful students. One of them was a Jesuit seminarian, now Father Hanh Pham, SJ. Hanh made some insightful contributions to my Religion and American Film class. He was also a terrific photographer.

At one point there was an exhibit of Hahn’s photos at  JSTB (The Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, now at Santa Clara University). There I found a wonderful photograph of some crabapple buds. The buds were surrounded by snow, so it wasn’t my birthday yet. But they were beautiful nonetheless. A framed copy of the photograph hangs in our apartment, so I see it quite often. And if am not too much of a Luddite,I have shared a copy of that photo with you next to this blog post,  courtesy of Father Hanh who’s now in campus ministry out at Regis University in Denver. In looking at it, please hope with me that human beings like that young couple down near Philly, and like us, will see the error of our ways and begin planting crabapple trees instead of cutting them down.

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