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In Sorrow and Gratitude, A Piece for Professor Catherine Bell

[This piece was written for the Santa Clara University Religious Studies Department Newsletter, “Perspectives,” upon the recent death of Emeritus Professor Catherine Bell, a renowned scholar in History of Religions and a mentor of mine during the last three years. She died on Friday. Please hold her family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.]

I will never forget one particular afternoon I spent around a seminar table with Religious Studies faculty and students during my sophomore year. Well-known department Alum Reza Aslan was there to discuss his new acclaimed book and his graduate studies with the intimate crowd. He was the reason we gathered and Aslan’s perspective was a treat, but it was the words of my mentor—and his mentor—the late Professor Catherine Bell, that made the roundtable event so profoundly unforgettable for me.
 

“Jessica” she proclaimed from across the table during the discussion. “You have something to say, don’t you?” She had watched me squirm at the other end of the table, repeatedly trying to contribute to the conversation only to be quieted by the eager comment of someone else in the room. “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak up with some confidence,” she told me. “There will always be older men with louder voices than you.”

She had seen right through me. Clearly the youngest student in attendance, I was a little intimidated to be in the presence of so many older, incredibly accomplished students and professors. Instead of speaking up with my question, I had anxiously waited for a moment when I could politely voice my inquiry, one I assumed to be naturally less important anyway. She had also noticed that I was only other female in the room (an odd gender demographic for a Religious Studies event at our university). The voices around me were deeper and louder, quite literally.

I never discussed that day with Professor Bell, but it stayed with me. It remains more pressing than ever as I gratefully and sorrowfully consider the gift of her mentorship since the recent news of her death. I think I keep returning to the words of that seminar table these days because they capture a lesson Professor Bell had already begun to teach me, one she continued to affirm during the rest of her life. It was a lesson about courage.

As Bell’s research assistant during her last two years at Santa Clara, I had the privilege of working on her final book, carrying out various random tasks, and organizing her files and shelves. I could appreciate the many aspects of our work together, both the intellectually exciting content and the monotonous aspects of the job, because they ultimately provided me the opportunity to simply sit and talk with her. I developed a great affection for her wit and the stories she told me. During the blazing California summer, she recalled writing her dissertation under blossoming trees on a warm day at the University of Chicago while she sipped an ice-cold beer. I loved picturing the brilliant woman there, young and cool, and a little like me. Over tomato and cheese sandwiches at her house near campus, she told me about the adventurous research trips she took through Asia and showed me her unique stamp collection stocked by gifts from her overseas colleagues.
 
  As I befriended this well-rounded, ever-interesting mentor, I concomitantly recognized a profound strength and integrity that I admired very much. In a conversation we shared about philosophy in her office one day, she confided in me her take on innovative thinking. We tend to get too caught up in the normative paradigms of our time, she explained, and this can make us blind to the possibilities right before our eyes. Innovative and exciting ideas sprung from a combination of learning societal and intellectual norms, then courageously addressing them with a fresh vantage point. To be great is to be a bold and well-informed non-conformist, and as I began to read Bell’s scholarship I realized that this insight was precisely what made her a world-class intellectual. She was brilliant, yes, but ultimately she was brave enough to think outside the box. Courage made her a great.

As my generous mentor, Professor Bell and I often discussed my dreams of graduate school and collegiate professorship. Always full of candid and sensible advice, she patiently listened as I floundered through potential graduate school choices and disciplines within the field. One day, sensing that I was a bit overwhelmed by the application process before me, Professor Bell provided words of reassurance. “You need to look at your life, Jessica. What are the questions that haunt you? What are the questions that surface in your own life?” she said. “That will be what you study. That is all we have.” I felt like Professor Bell imparted on me something precious with these words. Putting together pieces from our many conversations, I concluded that this insight might reveal one of the secrets behind her courage. Bell had a profound awareness that her work was an outpouring of who she was. It was a venture of integrity in the life she had made and was given.

Professor Bell challenged me to strive for this same courageous integrity, and that is what made her a great teacher and mentor. “You have something to say, don’t you?” I hear her say. “Well, you’re going to have to learn how to speak up with some confidence.” In the days since the news of her death, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for Catherine Bell’s presence in my life and community. What a privilege to witness such greatness. What a privilege that she would claim and enable such greatness in me, and in all of us. I pray that we might honor her by exemplifying the same strength she demonstrated throughout her life, all the way through to the very end.
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