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.


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.


Writing in Community

July 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
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Well, last week’s post on this blog page was my two-hundreth. This one is my two-hundred-and-first.

WordPress, my blog site provider, informs me of the number of my posts every time I do one. I couldn’t help noticing when the announcement hit two hundred. Even I think that’s a lot.

I began blogging in August of 2009, just after my last book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, was published. The blog was supposed to help sell the book. Good luck with that. As a friend said, if American Catholics really do suffer from an inability to mourn as I argue in Tracing, they probably don’t want to read about it.

I also had a notion that a blog would be a good place to pursue my then-growing interest in World Christianity, more specifically, Christianity in the Global South. I was taken up with the notion that the future of Catholicism was in Africa and Latin America. I even got a research appointment at the Center for World Christianity at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

But soon, the blog more or less became an end in itself. Sometimes I write about Catholicism, or about gender and Catholicism, which have been major interests of mine since the 1970s. Sometimes I write about the environment—climate change, water, fracking—which are the things I worry the most about. Sometimes I just write. I have considered changing my tag line from “An American Catholic on the Margins of World Christianity” to “An American Catholic on the Margins of Catholicism” or even “An American Catholic on the Margins of Almost Everything.”

I began writing long before I had a blog page, of course. I started wanting to be a writer when I was a kid. When I was twelve I had forty-two pen pals, most of them from Girl Scout camp. In high school and college, I wanted to be a poet, till it dawned on me that only geniuses support themselves as poets, and not even geniuses most of the time. I published my first genuine article in an education journal, The Reading Teacher, in 1974. I also made good money as a grant writer between 1979 and 1992.

I suppose I hoped for a while that I would become a famous writer and get invitations to go places and talk about my books and articles. But I am really terrible at promoting myself–a common characteristic of shanty Irish, I’m told. At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion one year, my mentor, Laura Levitt, said to me “There’s Judith Butler. Go tell her what a brilliant job you did using Gender Theory in your chapter on Mary Gordon.” I almost fainted at the thoughtOne of my books, about Sophia, did make some money, but I wrote it with two United Methodist minister friends, Hal Taussig and Sue Cole. By the time we split the royalties three ways, they were pretty modest. (And I have to confess that Hal and Sue did most of the promotion!)

But I don’t really care about all that. What has come to me over the years is that writing is something that  I do for and within the communities I belong to: The Grail Movement; the Catholic women’s ordination movement, especially the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference branch of that movement; Pax Christi Metro New York, the local branch of the international Catholic peace movement.  Most of the hundred or so people who “follow” my blogpage are members of those communities, as well as family and friends.

I suppose I could be out there promoting my writing as if I were James Patterson or somebody. I got an email last week from CreateSpace, the Amazon wing that’s publishing my collection of articles about the nuns, coaching me on how to get more buyers. One of these days I may read it. But what really matters to me is the conversation I’m having with you all, in Philly, in the Grail, around the country. And I love it when you comment on my posts, so please would you join the tiny group of those who do and say something back now and then?  Xox.

Happy Almost Easter!

March 28, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, its Thursday of Holy Week. Time for what we Catholics call “The Triduum” –three days of services during which we follow Jesus from his last supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, through his passion and death, to his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It’s quite a journey.

For me, though, the journey got underway big time last weekend at the Palm Sunday Mass at my parish church, Our Lady of Refuge here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. At that Mass we read for the first time during Holy Week the New Testament Passion story (this year, from St. Luke). Then, probably because the Passion takes longer to read than the usual Sunday Gospel, the pastor, Michael Perry, got up in the pulpit and instead of giving a sermon simply reread the epistle, Philippians 2.  There are times when I might have regretted such a  choice, but the passage from Philippians is, in my opinion, spectacular–a liturgical proclamation that’s at the heart of the Christian faith:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

a thing to be grasp,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him

and given him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Now I know there will be all sorts of objections to this text–it adulates suffering, there are many other religions so why should every knee bow to Jesus, it ignores women, etc. In the past I myself have offered these criticisms (and more) of other biblical and theological texts.

But I still want you to know, Philippians 2 moves me very deeply.

Perhaps my saying this will make more sense if I add that my first conscious encounter with Philippians 2 was singing the Gregorian setting of it–the “Christus Factus Est”–along with other Grail women when I lived at the Grail’s national center outside Cincinnati in the 1970s. I still close my eyes and sing it to myself from time to time, decades after Gregorian chant has pretty much died out in the Grail (and other places).

Perhaps  listening to a recording of  the “Christus Factus Est” will help you to understand why the text moves me as deeply it does–in a way that my talking about it cannot. (Had I found a recording by a group of women, you might understand the strength of my feelings even more.)

We Are All Going to Die

July 22, 2012 at 11:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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You may notice that I’ve been AWOL the past few weeks. I’ve been travelling. Six days in Toronto in June, followed by a little rest and then ten days in Berkeley and in Southern California. I intended to keep posting  while I was on the road, but it just didn’t happen. Too much else to deal with, especially my own emotions.

I went to Toronto to visit a dear college friend who is dying of metastatic breast cancer. I managed to fit in some visits with other Toronto friends, by mostly I just talked with and helped my friend, Margaret, while her husband was away at a conference. Since I came home, she has stopped chemotherapy and gone into hospice.

Throughout everyone’s life, people die. My grandfather, “Poppie,” died when I was five. When I was thirty-two, my Grail friend and mentor, Eleanor Walker, died, also of metastatic breast cancer. A few years back, my mother died at the age of ninety-three.

These deaths affected me greatly. I adored my grandfather. But I was five. His death didn’t make me think I was going to die. And Eleanor’s death at the age of fifty-nine was a genuine tragedy; she had been so full of life. But I was thirty-two. Fifty-nine seemed ages away. And while my mother’s death did make me think some about my own mortality, it also made me think that I might live as long as she had, that is, for thirty more years.

Margaret’s death is another matter entirely. You may recall that I turned sixty-five in April. Margaret is two months younger than I am; we celebrated her birthday during my visit. The thought of losing her makes me sick. I was in her wedding. She came down to Philly from Toronto for my father’s funeral. In the 1980s, we met in Venice after a theological meeting she’d attended and rode through the canals in gondolas and talked non-stop for several glorious days. More recently I visited her during her sabbatical at the Ecumenical Institute at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. When I think about our praying vespers with the monks in the abbey church, I start to cry.

Margaret’s dying forces me think much more concretely about my own death. There’s no way to portray this as some terrible mistake, however painful it is. I am already doing things like not having the faintest idea why I just dashed into the kitchen; when I go back to my office, it comes to me, so then I dash back.  I can’t deny that people my age die, and I will too, before long.

I am trying to slow down and be present to this reality. Those of you who know me realize that this will be no small feat; slowing down is hardly a category in my mind. But I am determined. This means I may be slow to post on my blog sometimes. But perhaps when I do, what I write will be more worth reading.

Still Life with Chickens

November 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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So you haven’t heard from me in a while because I’m in Loveland, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, at the tri-annual general assembly of the US Grail, a branch of the International Grail. The Grail is a women’s movement in seventeen countries around the world. We’re meeting at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center. I’ve been coming here since I was a college student, in the late sixties.

The topics addressed at the meeting are pretty interesting—Thursday, the Grail’s enviironmental work, Friday our work at the United Nations, particularly with the Commission on the Status of Women, and Saturday, our spirituality. But to tell you the truth, what I’ve really been thinking about is chickens.

Now just so you know, I’m a city girl. I was born in a city, and have lived in cities for most of my adult life. When I was a kid, my Mom and Dad used to take me to Manhattan on a Trailways bus (my Uncle Hughie worked for Trailways and got us free tickets). They’d walk me around  and tell me that New York is the greatest place on earth. I believed them.

So perhaps you can imagine my amazement when I found myself on a farm in Lovelend, Ohio, circa 1974, in charge of a coop full of chickens. The Grail had, since it’s US founding in the early 1940s, been deeply involved in the back-to the-land movement and the Catholic Rural Life Conference.  For many years (but no more) in order to join the Grail you went to the Grailville farm and got formed. My experience with the chickens was at the tail end of the formation-on-the-farm era.

I was really terrible with the chickens. Let’s be clear: I’m a writer. I basically make my way from the library to the computer to the coffee pot and back. The chickens baffled me. When I brought the bucket of food into the chicken coop, the chickens would be in the manger (or whatever you call it). I would put down the bucket and shoo them out. By the time I picked up the bucket again, they’d be back in the manger. They were not responsive to reason. I also regularly left the lights on in the chicken coop. The rooster would crow in the middle of the night. The people in the house closest to the chicken coop would then call me and I had to walk over and turn off the lights.

Before long, one of the Grail women in leadership sent for me and said it seemed that the chickens were not my greatest strength, and so, instead, would I please compile an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I did so, and basically, never looked back. Within the next decade I co-authored a series of books that grew out of a series of feminist theology programs we had at Grailville.

So why, you may ask, am I thinking of chickens this week, between sessions on climate change and the UN? Because while I’m here I’m staying with a Grail friend who lived here on the farm with me in the seventies, and then married the son of a local Grail member, had a family, and lives down the road. She’s a fabric artist, and her husband runs his own construction company, but in previous years, he was a farmer. Soon after I arrived, Becky announced, with some enthusiasm, that she and Pat are now raising chickens. She took me out to the ingeniously designed coop and showed them to me. There are eight of them, and a rooster, and they lay eight eggs a day. But there’s no manger, and no lights, either. They mostly eat vegetable waste left over from the family meals. Becky says that if you don’t wash the eggs, you don’t even have to refrigerate them. I think I’m going to eat a couple of them for breakfast, for old time’s sake.

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.

Prayer for Immigrants

August 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Trina Paulus, a Grail member, is active in a group called Parishioners for Peace and Justice at St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in Montclair, New Jersey. The group is circulating this “Prayer for Immigrants.” Its simplicity and its request that God share God’s compassion with those on the other side of the debate appeal to me. Perhaps if we all say this prayer–then write to our Congresspeople! –things will get better.  (Apologies for the extra lines in verses two and three; for the life of me I can’t get rid of them. Maybe somebody half my age will stop by some day soon and show me how to fix this!) 

Prayer for Immigrants 

God of the journey, God of the traveler,
We pray for those who leave their homes
in search of new beginnings and possibilities,
may they know your presence with them. 

We pray that those who seek to make a home in this country
may find us welcoming 
and willing to help them find a path toward citizenship. 

We pray that our legislators, as they craft new immigration legislation 
may find the wisdom and courage 

to enact new policies that do justice for our country
and for those who would immigrate here. 

We pray for those who fan the flames of fear
and discrimination against the undocumented,
that they may be touched with your divine compassion.
We pray in Jesus’ name. 


(From the Archdiocese of Chicago)
 St. Peter Claver Church Parishioners for Peace & Justice 8/08/10 Issue 32 





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