Catholic Misogyny Matters

January 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm | Posted in Vatican, women | 5 Comments
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Well, the enthusiasm for Pope Francis continues unabated. On December 30, an article in the National Catholic Reporter  said it all: “Pope Francis Continues to Take the World by Storm.” After which an article in a secular publication (don’t ask me which one)  called him “the most powerful religious leader in the world.” And in a piece on Francis and the environment in the NY Times, (!!!) Andrew C. Revkin describes his participation in a four-day Vatican workshop on the environment organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Academy of Social Sciences last May as one of the “highlights of my year, perhaps my career.”  Then there was the Pope’s success at getting diplomatic relations restored between the U.S. and Cuba. And his denunciation of human trafficking.

It’s impossible not to be grateful for these and other significant steps. Especially hope-inspiring is Francis’s anticipated encyclical on the environment. I have never in my life heard a Catholic priest mention climate change from the pulpit; maybe now I will. And once again, the head of the Catholic Church is  emphasizing the poor and denouncing capitalism, therefore, to some extent, reversing John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. Just having a smiling pope on the news is a breath of fresh air.

Unlike a lot of folks, however, I am not willing to give Papa Francesco and the institution he represents a pass on women. I realized that we were in trouble on this score more than a year ago when the article that accompanied Time’s naming Francis “person of the year” mentioned that “he is aware of the liberal clamor in the affluent West for the ordination of women.” But women, the authors went on to explain, have vastly more serious problems than mere exclusion from Catholic ordination, for example, female genital mutilation, which the Catholic Church is working against. Other journalists have characterized calls for Catholic women’s sacramental equality as just another aspect of the culture wars that Francis is challenging us to get over.

What possible connection could there be between the largest religious organization on earth banning women from major leadership roles and other forms of oppression against women? Let me, first of all, clarify what I’m saying here: there are more Muslims in the world than there are Roman Catholics. But the Muslims are sort of like the Protestants: as I say to my American Baptist minister husband from time to time, the Catholics won the Reformation, not by having superior theology, but by managing to keep themselves more or less united, and by continuing to wear their really colorful outfits right into the era of Instagram and Facebook. All over New York  there are churches called something like “Salem Baptist Church,” and then down the street, “Greater Salem Baptist Church.” And just try to follow the Sunni/Shia/Iranian/Syrian/ISIS/ISIL distinctions on the evening news. The Pope is now the symbol of Christianity and in some senses the symbol of  religion itself because there is one and only one of him, and the RCC is the biggest religious organization on the planet.

So what does it matter for the well-being of women around the world that this icon of Christianity says that the ordination of women cannot be discussed and that women are intrinsically possessed of the feminine genius? For that matter, what does it matter for the very survival of the planet that Papa Francesco is soon to issue an encyclical about?

Let me be very clear here: the “feminine genius” that the Pope references, which is directly linked to the exclusion of women from Catholic sacramental leadership, means that women are inherently passive and responsive, while men are agents, initiators of the actions and communications to which women respond. This is not unlike the ideological framework that underpins the removal, in some cultures, of female genitalia so women can’t enjoy sex. And it is also the ideology driving the destruction of the environment, something that has happened since “Christian” Euro-America colonized the rest of the planet. Built into the claim that the earth, (and the church as well) is “our mother” is the suggestion that she is lying there waiting for something to get shoved into her –horizontal drills, for example, or infallible doctrines–and for the active, masculine genius to dig things out of her. Until we stop thinking of God as male and above us, and begin to recognize that God is also within, around, and underneath us, and is likewise a major component of the cosmic genius by which everything is interconnected, papal encyclicals on the environment are going to get us only so far.



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.


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.


“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.


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 | 11 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.

The Synod on the Family and the End of the World

October 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard about the recent gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome to discuss certain unbelievably important issues related to sexuality. The document presented for discussion, the relatio, used such radical terms as “welcoming” with regard to gays and lesbians, and the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to take communion.  Some conservative bishops have objected to the very mention of such things, for example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has said that causing “confusion” in the church is “of the devil.” And in the Sunday New York Times, the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthout argues that reversing Catholic sexual teaching, in particular, the teaching on divorce and remarriage as adultery, would put the church on a “precipice.” The is so, we’re told, because the sinfulness of divorce is rooted in the “specific words of Jesus of Nazareth.” If Pope Francis does allow such a reversal, we learn, it “would encourage doubt and defections…and eventually a real schism.” If the pope seems to be choosing this dangerous path–“reassigning his potential critics in the hierarchy, stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change…”– conservative Catholics should  consider that this pope “may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

Douthout is a successful writer, and he certainly has a right to his opinions.  But some of what he writes in this particular manifesto is problematic, to say the least. With regard to the “specific words” of Jesus on remarriage after divorce as adultery, I don’t have a copy of the Jesus Seminar volume that highlights in red the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels, but a lot of Jesus’ words were added by the books’ authors to address problems that arose well after his departure.  Even more to the point, as Baptist ethicist David Gushee notes in a new book in which he changes his position on LGBTI people,  Christians have been quoting the Bible to support their entrenched positions–on slavery, segregation, antisemitism, misogyny–for a very long time.  The church owes apologies to many, many people, including gays, lesbians, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

Another questionable assertion in Douthout’s article has to do with the terrible effect that a reversal of Catholic sexual teachings will have on the church’s small minority of orthodox adherents who have “done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline.” If Douthout had read Young Catholic America, a new sociological study about the  practice and beliefs of young American Catholics, he would be forced to acknowledge that the orthodox, here in the U.S. at least, are not keeping the church particularly vital: only 7 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 23 are what we might call “practicing” Catholics–going to Mass each week, saying religion is very important, praying. Twenty-seven per cent at the other end of the spectrum are totally disengaged.  Why? according to the Commonweal reviewer, “the most obvious factor identified in both the interviews and the survey data in Young Catholic America seems to be disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching, dramatically so with respect to both premarital sex and birth control.” A full 61 percent of “practicing” young Catholics report that they have had pre-marital sex. And young Catholics  across the spectrum acknowledged in their interviews that they have “major problems with the church’s ‘unrealistic’ teachings” on such matters.  How’s that for a precipice: huge numbers of young American Catholics ignoring teachings that people like Douthout make out to be the source and summit of the faith. (See my earlier post about sexual teaching as the top of the Catholic ideology hierarchy.)

But my chief complaint about the synod on the family is not aimed only at conservative Catholics like Douthout. It’s also aimed at the rest of us– Pope Francis, the bishops, and progressive Catholics like me who are preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the church’s sex/gender teachings  and behavior. (I myself have published five books and several hundred articles and reviews addressing aspects of sexuality and gender in Catholicism and Christianity.)

So why am I enormously frustrated with all of us, myself included? Because we ARE on a precipice– in fact, we’re actually on our way over this precipice, but it’s not the one Douthout is  worrying about. It’s the one that’s already causing massive droughts in the American West, from which a major portion of our food comes, and will cause very many coastal communities (including New York City) to be under water by 2050 (to give just a few examples.) It’s the climate precipice, and the fact that the synod focused on divorce and gay marriage instead of on our destruction of God’s creation is scandalous.  But of course, at a synod on that topic there might be some discussion about the ways in which the doctrine of  a transcendent God and the intrinsic nature of the missionary position contribute to the destruction of the world. And that would cause even more demonic confusion than the synod on the family did.

The Birth of the Pill (and More than Four Crusaders)

October 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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As you can see, I’ve been doing a lot of book reviewing lately. This week, the National Catholic Reporter published my review of Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, so here it is. (Apologies to those who already read it there.)


By Jonathan Eig
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

At first glance, The Birth of the Pill may seem an odd choice for review in a Catholic publication. Of the four “crusaders” in the subtitle, only one, obstetrician/gynecologist John Rock — was a practicing Catholic.

Of the other three, the brilliant research biologist Gregory “Goody” Pincus was the son of Jewish immigrants. Fired by Harvard for the Brave New World overtones of his in vitro fertilization discoveries, Pincus went on…(Continue here.)

Jesus Was a Migrant

October 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a slightly  revised version of a review that appeared in the current issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.A.


Jesus Was a Migrant. By Deirdre Cornell Orbis Books, 2014. 144 pp. $20.  Available at migrant.html

 Grail member Deirdre Cornell’s new book, Jesus was a Migrant, could hardly be more timely. Even as nearly seventy thousand unaccompanied minors have poured across the southern borders of this ostensibly Christian nation in the past year, too many of our fellow-citizens still oppose providing them with shelter. And in the face of this crisis, our president has allowed a mere four thousand refugee visas to be designated for these young people while failing to increase the total number of refugee visas at all.

In her very first chapter, Cornell articulates the argument that all of these Christians need to hear “Surely a God who migrated from heaven to be born to a refugee family—to be born to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journeys—surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How can migrants not matter?”

Cornell expands this message in fifteen subsequent narratives, each of which brings the experiences of migrants into detailed and memorable focus. In Part I, we walk with the migrants of Israel, from Genesis to Exodus to Babylon and back, and then meet Cornell’s own immigrant ancestors fleeing to the U.S. during the Great Irish Hunger of the 1840s. In Part II, we celebrate with Rosa, a Central American migrant who had made her way to the U.S. at great cost only to be forced to return home a month after her quinceañera; then we bury with Deirdre the stillborn twins of Susana and Pedro even as other Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In further chapters we mourn with the Latino community as they raise the money to ship the body of a young migrant back to Mexico and share the visit of Deirdre and her family to their compadres and godchildren in a trailer park in Florida. Jesus and other migrants become ever more real to us as we proceed.

In some respects, Jesus was a Migrant is a continuation of Cornell’s two previous books. She continues writing in the first person, for example, weaving her own (now twenty) years of migrant ministry into the stories of the men and women she and her husband Kenney serve. Jesus was a Migrant also continues the references to and elaboration on the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets that enriched her first book, Priceless View. Indeed, the integration of absorbing and accessible study of the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels in Cornell’s’s stories of migrant experience is one of the outstanding features of this new collection. And migration itself was already a subtext in American Madonna, Cornell’s second book, about the Virgin Mary crossing Mexican and U.S. borders.

But Jesus was a Migrant differs from these previous books in some respects. First of all, it’s a collection of shorter pieces, revisions of articles written for The Catholic Worker and other publications or given as talks. And presumably because they were created for different audiences, the articles exhibit less of the scholarly nuance that I, for one, valued in the two previous books.

Indeed, during my first reading of Jesus was a Migrant, I found it almost pious. For example, Cornell uses Marina Warner’s feminist critique of the cult of the Virgin Mary to leaven her study of Latino/a Marian devotion in American Madonna. But in Jesus was a Migrant, she draws (briefly) on the work of Ann Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic whose writing inspired Mel Gibson’s violent, antisemitic film, “The Passion of the Christ.” And while Patricia Miller begins Good Catholics, her study of the Catholic struggle over abortion rights, with a denunciation of the misogyny embedded in the doors of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cornell begins a chapter on the lives of Catholic saints who were migrants with a reflection on the body of Pierre Toussaint in the crypt beneath those doors. Indeed, in this chapter, Cornell includes the life of one of the figures on the doors Miller find so sexist, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini.

As I reread American Madonna however, I had to admit that Deirdre Cornell had warned readers of this shift well before the publication of Jesus was a Migrant. Speaking of her years working with Catholics in Mexico as a Maryknoll lay missioner that led her to a new devotion to the Mother of God, Cornell wrote, “Immersed in a community that I loved and that loved her, I began to speak less and to listen more…I learned to tread on holy ground where I had to take the proverbial sandals off my feet.”

The articles in Jesus was a Migrant are testimonies to this transformation. We all move toward holy ground in different ways. Some of us do so by critiquing the sexism sculptured on cathedral doors. Others cry out to the Mother of God to aid us when our children are deported or our partner gets cancer from pesticides. Jesus was a Migrant helps us hear that second set of voices.


My Buddhist Bracelet

October 4, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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A year or so ago I was walking across Bryant Park, just behind the New York Public Library, when a man I took to be a Buddhist monk walked up to me. He held out a bracelet made of dark brown round wooden beads; one bead, which was larger than the others, had two figures on it, apparently from some Asian language. The “monk” asked if I would like one. I took out a five dollar bill and offered it to him. He replied that the bracelet cost twenty dollars. I said I was sorry but I couldn’t pay twenty dollars and started to put the money back. He scowled at me, in a not very Buddhist way, but then took the five dollars and gave me the bracelet. I put it on.

I suppose I took the bracelet because I am somewhat attracted to Buddhism. I took a required course on Japanese Buddhism in graduate school and read some Dōgen, whose thinking I rather enjoyed. More recently though, since my husband and his mother were both so sick this summer,  I have been practicing Zen meditation. I decided I really needed to calm down. I even joined the Brooklyn Zen Center, in search of a community of support.

In sharing this with you, I do not mean to mean to suggest that I am some kind of spiritual adept. Except that it would demonstrate a distinctly unBuddhist kind of grandiosity to make such a claim, I’d be inclined to say that I am the worst meditator in the world. Often I seem capable of suspending the anxious planning my next activity (sometimes my next blog post) for no more than a few seconds at a time. And most days I can barely stay sitting for the fifteen minutes that I plugged into the  Zazen Lite app on my iPad.

Let me also be clear: I am not planning to transfer from Catholicism to Buddhism any time soon. As my American-Baptist-clergyman husband is given to saying, my Catholicism is genetic. Then too, some very distinguished Catholics have found Buddhism deeply meaningful. A copy of Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite is on the book shelf next to my computer.

Despite its pitifulness, my meditation practice does seem to be helping me. As a result, I suspect, of saying “thinking” and bringing my attention back to the present the six or seven thousand times I do so in any given meditation session, I now sometimes find myself being able top stop my mind from racing on to the next task when I am not meditating. Maybe this grey haired lady will learn to be in the present before she is no longer in it at all.

A few months into my meditation practice, I heard on the radio that Asian men posing as Buddhist monks were conning people in New York by selling fake Buddhist bracelets to them. I suppose this news could have annoyed me. I was certainly glad I hadn’t given the guy the twenty dollars (though the odds on this child of Depression-survivor working class parents doing so were slim to none even if the “monk” had been authentic.)

I’ve decided, though, that something about the fraudulent Buddhist bracelet fits in perfectly with my attempts at meditation. I’m not awfully good at it, but I find it a comfort. My quasi-monk wasn’t very honest, but it’s rather a nice bracelet. I think I’ll put it on and go meditate.



After the People’s Climate March

September 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Last Sunday, between 300 and 400 thousand other people and I marched around Manhattan to tell world leaders on their way to the UN climate summit that things have to change. I am sure you have seen photos and videos and read articles about the March. It was in many ways inspiring and encouraging. Just seeing the outfits people wore and the signs they carried made me smile many times. One of my favorites was a crude sign–a piece of cardboard on a stick carried by a young man–that read, “I Can’t Swim.” And as a person who has made many snide remarks over the years about environmentalists being white people who love polar bears, I laughed out loud at a t-shirt with a polar bear on it, who said, in a cartoon bubble, “Save the Humans!” Furthermore, after the March, at the UN, many heads of state, including our own Barack Obama, made inspiring statements about the need to act on climate change.

But there are (at least) two things you need to know if you want to grasp the full significance of the People’s Climate March.  This first may be obvious to a lot of readers: it took a massive amount of work. For the Interfaith Contingent, with which I and my sister Grail members marched, just establishing the order for our various groups to stand in  took very many  emails and phone discussions. The people from GreenFaith and who got us organized deserve an enormous amount of credit. It is also the case that in order to be sure the police would allow us to enter the Interfaith staging area on 58th St. for the March, we had to arrive before 11 AM, even though our contingent didn’t actually start marching until approximately 2:15 PM. Marching around Manhattan for an hour is nothing compared to standing and sitting and standing some more for three and half hours. I was exhausted before we set out.

The other thing you need to know is that, hundreds of thousands of marchers in NYC and around the world notwithstanding, the March doesn’t begin to be enough to force world leaders to take action on climate change. This is the case because neoliberalism, the economic system that came to dominate the world during the reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, simply won’t permit some reasoned process of changing our energy system, no matter how desperately such change is needed. As Chris Hedges points out in a devastating Truthdig column published a few days before the March, the NYC police, under the leadership of our ostensibly progressive mayor, wouldn’t so much as allow the March anywhere near the United Nations, despite the fact that it was explicitly aimed at the UN summit occurring later that week. The fossil fuel industry owns the government, and as Hedges argues compellingly, we’re going to have to engage in non-violent protest in very large numbers to turn things around. (I myself am  terrified at the prospect of going to jail, so don’t think I read Hedges’ article with equanimity.)

Adrian Parr’s galvanizing book, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politicsclarifies the ways in which the neoliberal economics that is inscribed in our societal DNA again and again appropriates environmental and climate change discourse (and actions) for its own purpose, the endless expanse of profit. It does this by rendering invisible the full cost of various climate related practices and products. For example, in her chapter on water, Parr explores the ways in which the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the early 2000s did and did not reverse the impacts of neoliberalism on the thirst of the average Bolivian. For water activists like me, the success of the citizens of Cochabamba in overturning the forced privatization of their water as part of the World Bank’s “structural adjustment program” was a glorious example of an environmental victory. Unfortunately, deeply inscribed class differences and political corruption mean many Bolivians must still struggle mightily for access to reasonably priced potable water. Similarly, the government of India touts the marvels that genetically modified seeds are doing and will do for the farmlands of India increasingly devastated by climate change. No mention is made of the profits the corporations who own these seeds are making, the increasing debt of the farmers who buy them, and the rising suicide rate among them. We might also ask who owns the factories where solar panels are manufactured and what  the laborers in those factories are being paid.

The argument that we can mitigate climate change and grow the neoliberal economy at the same time is what my doktormutter, Laura Levitt, calls a “happy narrative.” Enslaving somebody, destroying the environment,  and growing the economy go hand in hand, and only a radical commitment to stopping all of them can get us where we need to go.


Home from Vacation

September 22, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Some readers may have noticed a certain silence on my part. My last post appeared on August 16.  Well, we’ve been on vacation. But as with most things, there’s more to it than that.

At one level, there’s my esteemed companion’s absolute objection to mentioning in a blog post that we’re away, even as I find it hard to blog without doing so. We live in the middle of Brooklyn, and while I feel fairly safe here–lots safer than I felt in Brooklyn in the 1970s or 1980s–we really can’t afford to be inviting people over while we’re gone.

But at a deeper level, I just needed to knock off. I mentioned in an earlier post that my husband was seriously ill this past spring and summer, first with pneumonia, then with (thank God, early-stage) kidney cancer. Years ago I took a vocational aptitude test and got a score of less than zero for nursing, so you get a picture of me dealing with all that. Then, as Keith began to recover, Betty, his ninety-three year old mother down in Florida, became seriously ill–sort of lost her mind, leg swelled up, already had congestive heart failure, had surgery, stopped being able to breathe, had a tube down her throat, etc., etc. For days, every time the phone rang we expected to hear we’d have to fly down there for Keith to do the funeral. And in the midst of all that, a tooth popped out while I was flossing, and I ended up having a root canal and other fun dental procedures.

But we seem to have survived. Not only is Keith much better, his mother is about to go back to her independent living apartment, having regained her faculties and begun walking again. And I myself am having the occasional thought.

So let me share a few of them, after which, tomorrow or the next day, I’ll write something about yesterday’s People’s Climate March which I participated in.

During our time away, we spent a week at my brother’s place in rural Vermont, and almost two weeks in Quebec City, east of Montreal, in Canada. Regarding Vermont, let me say that it’s quite an experience for someone who ordinarily shares a borough with two-and-a-half million other people to go walking for an hour and not see a soul. Sometimes I really like it; other times it kind of freaks me out.

As for Quebec City, it’s pretty amazing. You may know that the old part of the city is walled, the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. Founded in  1608, it’s also full of museums and monuments about the history of New France, a subject I knew very little about before we went there. One of my favorite parts of the visit was taking a tour of the Museum of the Ursulines, which explores the history of the oldest order of Catholic sisters in North America, brought there by Sister Marie Guyart of the Incarnation. Sister Marie was a widow in Tours, France, who entered the (cloistered) Ursuline order but in 1639 traveled to New France and started the first convent in North America in Quebec City; the school she founded was also the first women’s educational institution in North America. A mystic, she also wrote dictionaries in three indigenous languages and an Algonquin catechism. And lest you think everything has changed in three-hundred-fifty years, she struggled against efforts by the bishop of Quebec City, Francois de Laval, to take control of her community.  Pope Francis canonized both of them together last April; I’m sure Archbishop Laval was thrilled to have feisty Soeur Marie join him at the same level of churchly adulation.

The other thing I love about Quebec City is that when I’m there I know how to speak French, whereas when I’m in Paris, I’m way too ignorant to be able to do so.  Seems as if only 10 percent of English Canada speaks French, so when an English speaker starts speaking in French, the Québécois are thrilled. A sales person said, “You really know how to speak French, don’t you!?”  whereas the snotty Parisians say, “Your accent is terrible. Speak English.” Finally, my seven years of French classes have been redeemed.

There’s lots more to be said about Quebec City, but not now. Stay tuned.

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