Remembering William Birmingham

September 25, 2015 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As baby-boomers like me get older, we increasingly suffer the loss of dear friends and beloved mentors. Of course, it’s not only in the later decades of life that these things happen; one of the Grail women who influenced me most, Eleanor Walker, died in 1979. But it certainly gets more frequent.

Two members of the generation ahead of mine whom I loved dearly were Bill and Mary Louise Birmingham. Life-long New Yorkers and Catholic intellectuals, they encouraged me to pursue the post-working-class life of reading and writing that I yearned for. Mary Louise died four years ago, just short of her ninetieth birthday. Bill followed recently.

The following is a memorial for Bill that I wrote for Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

I first met Bill Birmingham and his wife Mary Louise at Grailville in the late 1960s. They were there leading a program; I don’t remember the theme, but I definitely remember them. I still have a copy of a contrapuntal reading that Bill put together for that program or one soon after, about the Holocaust. One side of group read aloud “And praised be the Lord,” and the other side responded “Auschwitz.” And then the first side said again “And praised be the Lord,” and the second side responded, “Buchenwald.” And so on. I can still hear it.

When I moved back to New York from Ohio in 1983 I began going to visit Bill and Mary Louise at their apartment in Stuyvesant Town, on the East Side of Manhattan. They had moved back to the city from New Jersey after their five kids were grown. We became good friends. They were both enormously kind to me. And interesting. And funny.

What I would like to remember about Bill, in particular, today, however, is that he was a significant Catholic intellectual, something that had a major impact on me. Nobody in the working class world I grew up in was editing a major Catholic journal as Bill and his good friends Joe and Sally Cunneen were doing when I knew him. Next to me on my desk here is a volume of articles that had been published in that journal, Cross Currents, between 1950 and 1990. Edited by Bill, the collection includes articles by Karl Rahner, Martin Buber, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Thomas Berry and others. Under the editorship of Bill and Joe and their predecessors, Cross Currents introduced American Catholics to a wide range of distinguished intellectuals and theologians. I remember how thrilled I was the first time one of my articles appeared in Cross Currents; Bill said that it had “narrative drive.“ I have rarely felt more honored.

In the four years after Mary Louise’s death I also felt deeply honored to be included in the monthly dinner gatherings held by the Birmingham sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews at Bill’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Even as he aged, Bill was still unfailingly warm, thoughtful, and welcoming. It saddened me when he finally had to move out of the apartment where I had visited with him and Mary Louise for so many years. But I also rejoiced that he was able to spend his final months in the home of his oldest daughter Moira and not far from one of his other daughters, Meg.

How blessed we all were to have had Bill Birmingham in our lives.

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Carrot Soup

August 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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It could seem, I suppose, that I spend my every waking minute analyzing papal encyclicals or reviewing books about gender and the Catholic church.  But that’s not true.

Take last Sunday.  At the end of the 11:30 AM Mass at Our Lady of Refuge, my parish at the western end of Flatbush here in Brooklyn, a lay leader got up and made an announcement. He said there were a lot of carrots left over from this week’s food pantry and they would be distributed on the way out of church. I didn’t think too much about it.

When I  got outside, however, another gentleman walked up to me and offered me a good-sized bag of such carrots. My husband and I are by no means in the U.S. economic 1 percent, but Refuge is about 2 percent white, so I may well be in the 1 percent there.

“Surely somebody needs these more than I do?” I responded.

“Please, just take them,” the gentleman responded. So I did.

The distance from Refuge to our apartment is about .9 of a mile, so I had occasion to think about how many carrots were in the plastic bag as I walked home. When I weighed them, there were approximately 5.5 pounds of carrots, each two or three inches long and maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

My esteemed companion said “You could always just compost them.”

But  I couldn’t.

The carrots reminded me, somehow, of my five years on the Grail’s farm in southwest Ohio in the 1970s, and particularly of my dear friend Elise Gorges who ran the kitchen there for thirty years or so. Elise died a year and a half ago. I myself never harvested carrots from the Grailville garden, but I just couldn’t imagine Elise throwing all those carrots out.

I’ve got this app on my iPad for recipes from the New York Times, so I plugged in “carrots” and found a very simple recipe for carrot soup. It took me half an hour to cut both ends off the hundred and fifty or so little carrots and give them a scrub in the dish pan. The recipe called for six cups of chicken broth but I didn’t have any on hand and would have to walk over to the food co-op to buy some.

“What would Elise do?” I wondered.

I remembered I did have a bunch of vegetable bullion cubes over on the spice shelf, so I boiled some water, mixed the bullion cubes in , and then cooked the carrots in the liquid for thirty minutes. While they were cooking I sautéed some dried thyme and a bunch of onions (not quite as many as the recipe called for, but seriously, I was not going out to get more!);  when they were done I salted and peppered them. When the carrot and the onions had cooled off a bit, I put it through my forty-year-old Cuisinart food processor.

For supper my husband and I each had a bowl of the carrot soup, along with a grilled cheese sandwich (he’d gotten good at making grilled cheese sandwiches when his sons were little). All told, I made fourteen cups of carrot soup, so we have enough for three more meals in the freezer.

I think Elise would have been pleased.

Farewell, Dear Mothers

March 1, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Uncategorized, women | 6 Comments
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If you are an (early) baby-boomer like me, or older than I am (almost 68), what I’m going to say here won’t be anything new to you. If you’re a lot younger, maybe. But in any case, perhaps we can share reflections and begin to come to terms with some of this hard stuff.

My mother, God bless her, did her best. But she was not noted for her warmth or supportiveness–at least not to my brother and me. Some of the cousins fared better; Mom sometimes rose to occasions. But as for me, I spent my younger years looking for a mother, or mothers, to make up for certain significant lacks.

One of the groups who rose to the occasion big time were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who staffed the Catholic girls high school I attended in the early 1960s, Notre Dame, Moylan, south of Philadelphia. The nuns at that high school were the first genuinely educated people I had ever met, and the love and support they showed me is hard to describe adequately. A number of them still send me birthday cards, and pray for my husband when he’s sick, and love the things I write.

Toward the end of my senior year at Moylan, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame there, Sister Marcella Marie, invited a member of the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, to come and speak about the Grail. After Veronica Barbato’s talk, I began going up to the Grail’s center on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia for programs and liturgical events. The Grail seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, which had just ended.

Eventually one of the Grail women drove me out to the group’s national headquarters, Grailville, in rural southwestern Ohio. I began spending summers there while I was in college and teaching the fourth grade–don’t even ask!!–after which  I joined the Grailville staff for four years (1975 to 1979). While I was at Grailville I co-authored my first book, led programs, met nationally-known feminist theologians, became concerned about the environment (Grailville is an organic farm) and more or less started being the person I am today. It was an extraordinary experience.

In my encounter with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and again with the Grail women, I was most deeply influenced  by those a generation ahead of me, women who were in their twenties and thirties for the most part. This means that I have been in conversation with–and loved–a number of them for fifty years.

And now they are dying. I said to someone recently that being in the Grail for me now is like having fifty mothers all in their eighties. And it’s true with the SNDs as well.

Let me illustrate this with two stories.  A few years ago, at the funeral of a Moylan classmate,  I ran into a woman named Eileen Holahan. She had been an SND for many years, and the director of the glee club at Notre Dame, an activity that had given me great joy.  Eileen had left the convent somewhat later in life than a lot of women did, and worked as a professional for several decades. At the time of my friend’s funeral, Eileen was in her early eighties, but in good health, and we had a few wonderful visits when I was in Baltimore, where she lived. Then last winter, one day, her sister called to say Eileen had fallen on the ice outside her apartment building, damaged her brain, and died. I still can’t believe it. I keep expecting her to telephone me.

Then this past Christmas Eve I called Carolyn Gratton, an internationally known Grail member whom another Grail member, Anne Burke, used to take me to visit when Carolyn was a graduate student in psychology at Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s.  Carolyn finished her Ph.D. and went on to be a recognized expert and author in the areas of spirituality and spiritual direction. I didn’t always agree with her–she was so much more benign a person than I am–but we had been talking throughout my entire adult life. When I called her on Christmas eve, I told her I’d be up to Toronto to see her in the spring. Next morning there was an email from the Grail saying that Carolyn had died in her sleep.

Then there’s Ruthie Chisholm, another Grail member who had spent decades nursing with the Grail team at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda. I lived with Ruth for a while at the Grail Center up in Cornwall, New York, after she returned from Uganda. Ruth had a terrible stroke a few years ago, so her death was not unexpected;  in many respects,actually,  it was a blessing, because she had been totally disabled by the stroke, she, a woman who had always been active.  But it’s hard to imagine the world without her.

As I said at the outset, none of this should be all that surprising. Indeed, it’s the new normal; people get old and then they die. So will I, I’m told. But it’s unbelievably hard to imagine a world without these and the  other radiant women who impacted my life so significantly.

Perhaps I’ll just stop writing now and go have a visit with them.

What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

Loving the Elders

May 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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By now, you’ve probably figured out that something has been up. I haven’t blogged for a while. The thing is, my esteemed companion, Keith A. Russell, has convinced me that it’s not a good idea to announce in advance that we’re going on holiday, lest somebody drop by our Flatbush apartment while we’re gone and clean the place out. So I just disappear and ask your forgiveness later.

Ten days ago we drove out to southwest Ohio to visit with a number of members of the International Grail Movement–women seventy to a hundred years old–who had flown in from all over the world for a gathering of “Grail elders.” Some of these women had an enormous impact on me when I was in college and in my twenties and thirties. At the risk of sounding morbid, I was a bit afraid that if I didn’t get myself out there, I might not have another chance, especially to see the ones who had come from Europe and South Africa and Australia.

I “met the Grail,” as we say, when a Grail member gave a talk at my Catholic girls’ high school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1965. I began going to meetings at the Grail Center in Philadelphia, and then I visited Grailville, the Grail’s farm and program center outside Cincinnati, and then I went there for several summers while I was teaching the fourth grade, and then I joined the Grailville community and lived on the farm for four full years. There’s no way I would be anything like the person I am if I had not done so. And a number of Grail women who were in their late thirties and forties when I was in my twenties were the most astonishing role models a working class Catholic baby-boomer could ever have hoped for. Somebody was always suggesting that I compile and edit a prayer book for the community, or go take a grant-writing workshop, or work up a feminist version of the Easter Vigil to celebrate during Holy Week. They helped me to believe that anything was possible.

Forty years later, some of these women have left us. I walked down to the cemetery behind the Grailville Oratory one morning to have a chat with them. But lots of others were at the elders’ gathering, so I got to visit with them, and pray with them, and recall a wide range of amazing experiences we had shared. With Francine Wickes, my dear friend from Bangor, Maine, I recalled dancing to Pachelbel’s Canon during a liturgy in the Oratory, and I resolved to go up soon to interview her about the twenty years she spent with the Grail in Indonesia. With Carolyn Gratton, the gifted spiritual director and psychologist from Toronto, I recalled running a summer program at Grailville in 1975 where several of the participants who had come up from Louisiana played Miles Davis music on the loudest setting of their tape recorder for the entire month.

I sat next to another old friend, Alice Dougan, during the Trinity Sunday liturgy. The priest, the Grail’s dear friend George Wilson, SJ, announced that instead of giving a sermon, he wanted us to talk with one another about an experience we had of the mystery of God. Al shared with me that her senior year in high school, she had been so deeply moved by Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain that after graduation, she joined the Poor Clares, a contemplative religious order. She only lasted a year and a half, she told me–by then she had discovered that she was a “doer”–but in that year and a half, she learned how to pray . Something that came in handy during her six decades of Grail service in Africa and the US, I’d warrant.

Another person whom I had not seen in a very long time was South African Grail member, Anne Hope. During one of our conversations, I told her the story of how a Grail member who had influenced both of us enormously, Eleanor Walker, had become a Catholic. While she was a Ph.D. student in French at Columbia during World War II, Eleanor read a lot of French medieval literature, and decided she wanted to join the Catholic Church. This can sound pretty crazy now, but in those days, and for decades before, Catholicism’s medieval vision of the world attracted many people who were searching for an alternative to the increasing violence of modernity and industrialization. Eleanor went to the rectory at Corpus Christi, the famous Catholic parish at Columbia where Thomas Merton also was received into the church, and said she wanted to be baptized. The priest asked her if she knew a Catholic who could be her godparent, but she said no, she didn’t.  Probably because she was a student in French, the priest at Corpus Christi  gave Eleanor the phone number of Jacques Maritain, the famous French neo-Thomist philosopher who had fled Paris with his Jewish convert wife, Raissa, to escape the Nazis. Maritain did, indeed, serve as Eleanor’s godfather when she was baptized, and she went to the Maritains’ apartment for tea (well, wine, probably) every Sunday afternoon thereafter until the Maritains moved to Princeton. Anne Hope had never heard the story, and urged me to write my memories of Eleanor, who died in 1979. Anne herself had just finished her memoirs, including the story of how she had been forced to flee South Africa under apartheid because of her work with Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid hero.

There were sixty women at the meeting, which means there are many more stories I could tell  you,  but it’s time for me to go slice the collards for supper. I’m sorry to have been AWOL for so long, but probably you can see that it was worth it. I’ll write another post soon.

To Read Thomas Berry, Start Here

August 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the 1970s, I lived for a number of years with twenty-five or so other women in a Catholic feminist community on an organic farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The community was called Grailville, and the years I spent there changed my life.

It would be hard to tell you in one blog or even many the extraordinary things I learned and experienced while I was living at Grailville. But what I want to tell you about today concerns  a Roman Catholic  priest named Thomas Berry who visited the Grailville community from time to time and talked with us. The US Grail–the women’s movement of which Grailville was (and is) the national center–had been part of the “back to the land” movement from its early years, and by the 1970s the environmental movement was definitely underway, with books appearing like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.   But Berry, a Passionist monk and professor of world religions at Fordham University in New York, was presenting some truly original ideas about the relationship between the earth and the creation stories of the world religions.

Between Berry’s visits, we would read and discuss mimeographed copies of his recently written articles. One of them, “The New Story,” proposed an entirely new creation-centered framework for understanding the universe in place of the redemption-centered framework that had served the west for more than a millennium. In 1987, the Catholic intellectual journal Cross Currents, co-edited by the Grail’s old friend Bill Birmingham, published several of these essays, including “The New Story,” and in 1990, Berry published his groundbreaking The Dream of the Earth in the Sierra Club’s Nature and Natural Philosophy Library. Today, Berry, sometimes described as a “geologian” rather than a “theologian,” is widely considered a pioneer in religious environmentalism. Reading and discussing Berry’s ideas with him in the 1970s had a profound impact on what I believe and how I live my life.

Now, Orbis Books has published a collection of Berry’s essays, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth. This short, compact volume of readable articles is an excellent overview of Berry’s thinking in cosmic/religious environmentalism. The introduction by two leaders in the religion and ecology movement, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, clarifies Berry’s importance in the movement.  Among the other contributions, published by Berry between 1982 and 2000, are pieces on “Christianity and Ecology,” a manifesto about what is required of Christianity if the planet is to survive;  “The Wisdom of the Cross,” in which Berry rereads the crucifixion in light of the entire history of the cosmos; and  “Women Religious: Voices of the Earth,” a paean to the pioneering environmental work of US Catholic Sisters.

As I read these essays, it comes to me that what Berry says here is far more directly critical of Catholic and Christian teaching than is Quest for the Living God, the book by the Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson which was recently singled out for reprimand by the US Catholic bishops. But Berry was never treated the way Johnson has been (though his forebear Teilhard de Chardin certainly was, and more.) Part of the reason for this is that it was a different set of bishops who were reading Berry’s essays (or not bothering to read them). Also, Berry didn’t claim to be writing theology; the bishops may feel less responsible for “a geologian” or “cultural historian,” as Berry sometimes described himself. Or maybe it’s just more maddening when a Catholic Sister raises these questions.

Regardless of the reason, Berry’s work should not be underestimated just because the US Catholic bishops haven’t denounced it. It’s a radical revisioning of the relationship between God and the cosmos, one badly needed as the planet heats up and our environmental options dwindle. I only wish that a wide range of American Christians would read these essays and act on them.

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