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A woman said this to Karen during her recent trip to Honduras. Along with a group of students from Harvard Divinity School, Karen was there to learn from the women of this rural Honduran community whose lives are plagued by rape and murder. She had proposed a moment of silence to initiate the gathering of local women and foreign students that day, but she learned there was no more tolerance for silence in this community. For too long violence and abuse has been hushed.
So they clapped.
Increasingly, I am aware of how silence shapes my formation as a young Catholic theologian. Beginning with my early undergraduate years, I was schooled in the politics of Catholic speech: there are theological statements—even questions—that one simply cannot ask before certain audiences. Over the years, however, I have learned that with meticulous care, one can find ways to articulate these inquiries in a language that veils its hints of potential “uncertainty” or “disagreement.” If I break this decorum of speech, even in the nascent phases of my theological career, I fear it may cost me a professorship or a ministry job. I can already name numerous theologians and ministers for whom this is the case.
It is unsettling to recognize the many ways in which I must privately silence myself for the sake of avoiding potential silencing from others. What kind of theology can happen in this environment? Can I produce relevant theology when I often feel that I cannot outwardly address the probing, courageous questions of my community? Maybe once I’m tenured. Can these questions wait twenty years?
For years, the unfolding public recognition of the Church’s orchestrated silencing of clerical sexual abuse victims has shaped my life as a Catholic. These clergymen stood up and spoke before their congregations week and week—year after year—while their victims sat silently in the pews. Yesterday in a report on Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday Homily, the New York Times analyzed what sounded like an implicit response to critics who implicate his guilt in the European abuse scandals. Granted, the Times reads between the lines of the Pope’s homily, but in the context of his public indictment, his words strike me as a clear attempt to hush his critics: “The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one ‘towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.’” The silence continues–and I continue to wonder what kinds of faith development, worship, or social justice work can happen in a church of whispers and hushed voices.
How can a young theologian, situated within her own matrix of silence, speak out against the perpetual silencing that enabled—and continues to enable—the grave injustice of the global clerical abuse crisis and its mismanagement at seemingly every level of church leadership? My silencing—as a woman, as a lay person, as a theologian and minister—will never amount to the painful silence imposed upon so many abuse victims in our church. Breaking my silence will not cost me nearly as much either.
I do not know how to speak to our Church right now. In fact, these days I find myself so hurt and angry words feel useless for articulating the magnitude of our situation. But I know there must be noise. “We don’t need a moment of silence. There has been too much silence already.” There must be noise.
Perhaps on Good Friday when I approach the cross of Christ’s suffering with our suffering, there will be no moment of silence. Perhaps I will do as Jesus did—I will shout. “God, why?”
Sometime before midnight on New Years Eve I found myself nuzzled into the living room couch with another friend who studies theology in graduate school. Amid the dancing, yelling, and clamoring of glasses at the party that surrounded us, she spoke one of the most simple, profound things I had heard about God in a long time.
After describing the details of a rigorous seminar course on prayer she had completed early that month, she said, “You know, I came out with a lot of doubts about whether God works in the world the way we often think God does. But I do think that God moves in people.”
A poet friend of mine once described the different types of poems she writes. She identified one kind by describing a visit to a museum when she found herself standing before this particular painting, staring and staring, simply captivated by it at the deepest parts of herself. She couldn’t walk away. She had to write a poem about this surprising moment of wonder that simply grabbed her. She writes these poems about simple, startling moments. I think God moves in people.
The more theology and philosophy I study, the more confused I am about the Infinite working in the finite. I’m reading Karl Barth and at the moment he is trying to convince me that in my human limitation I do not know God from within. He says something like, human beings cannot know this wholly-Other God but through the revelation of scripture and the Church. What to say? I do not have convincing words for responding to this brilliant theologian at the moment.
But I have wonder: I have these moments when God moves in me. And in these moments the finite world may be simply what it is, but something in me is different. The wonder persists beyond the limits of what I can explain with my rigorous reasoning right now. I’ll keep trying to put words to it.
“‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ gave way–here is the heart of the story–to ‘But into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Jesus handed himself over to the God who was not there. And found God there. In trusting the One who was not there, Jesus was resurrected…” –James Carroll, from Practicing Catholic
Sometimes, this is what it feels like to be a Catholic–like handing myself over to nothing. Handing myself over, but with hope for some future resurrection.
In his autobiography, James Carroll writes the lines quoted above amidst a story about one of his mentors, American poet Allen Tate. As a young seminarian Carroll visited Tate at his home, finding upon his arrival that one of Tate’s infant children choked and died in his crib only a week earlier. Tate’s Catholic priest refused the infant a Catholic funeral, as the child died unbaptized and because, according to Tate, the child’s father was a “bad” Catholic. The young Carroll was dismayed by the circumstances, and did his best to respond to his mentor with compassion and the message of a loving and unceasingly welcoming God.
In this quote, Carroll is telling his friend who God is–who Jesus is. I can only imagine that Tate, this grieving father, could relate to Carroll’s description of Jesus, for Tate was also a human encountering the absence of God and the difficulty of handing oneself over the to this very real experience of despair.
When I read stories like Tate’s I am angered by the cruelties committed in the name of Catholicism. I face these representations of the Church, and I think, “God is not there.” –Yet, Catholicism is my faith?
I also read about men and women like Carroll, though, and I remember why I still believe in Catholicism’s resurrection. I am challenged to believe that God even brings resurrection to places and people that seem to be without God. I am reminded that I still experience the same strange paradox of Jesus’ experience–and Tate’s experience: I have handed myself over to the God who was not always there–not always in Catholicism. Yet I still find God there, in Catholicism.
It is comforting to know this strange reality belongs to more than just me.
In the process of juggling the heavy chalice and coarse white napkin during my first occasion of serving as a Eucharist Minister, I managed to spill the sweet, red, consecrated wine—the Blood of Christ. It spilled all over my shaking hands. It formed a tiny puddle atop of the burnt red tile of the Mission Church floor. I shook with panic and embarrassment, but could not manage any productive move in response to what I had done. I had been careless with the gift of the Eucharist. I had spilled the Blood of Christ. And everyone watched me.
I was amidst an intimate evening liturgy with the Jesuit community and a small collection of guests from our university community. There were maybe thirty of us in attendance. Everyone could see me as I fumbled around with our Faith. This was at the heart of my momentary, paralyzing anxiety. My panic did not stem from a burden of personal shame about carelessly handling the Eucharist—I was confident this mistake was not unforgivable in God’s eyes. It was the gaze of my fellow Christians that terrified me. I knew how much the Eucharist means in our tradition, and I feared being judged a sloppy, unfit Catholic because of this incident. In my struggle to participate and serve the community, I had committed a grave liturgical sin, and everyone watched me do it.
Sometimes I think this is what it is like, being a theologian, or a minister, or simply just a Christian in our world today. We publicly take up a faith, a claim to a community, an allegiance to particular authorities (however ambiguous or ambivalent that may be), and everyone is watching us do it—fellow Christians, religious skeptics, curious inquirers. Everyone is watching.
And sometimes all I can do is stand there before everyone, the Blood of Christ dripping from my fingers, all too keenly aware that I am not the appearance of what a good Christian should be.
Seeing the shock and embarrassment in my frozen expression, Father Ravizza rescued me. This kind, gentle man stepped out of the communion line, came forward and leaned in close to me. “I spilled,” I said in a whispered confession. “It’s okay,” he replied. “Let’s do this…” He removed the white napkin from my clinched fingers, unfolded it and covered the small red puddle on the floor. He hurried over to the side altar for another napkin, and before I knew it he was at my side again, placing a clean cloth into my hand. He did not tell me to sit down. He did not replace me with another more competent minister. “Go ahead,” he said, nudging me back to the patient people in the communion line. “The Blood of Christ,” I began again…
When I struggle with the public imperfections of my Christian life, with the guilt of not being the community member I wish I was, or the person that I should be, I return to this moment for a reminder of redemption. Jesus will step out of the communion line to clean up this mess with me. And Jesus will tell me to “Go ahead,” again.
It was Ash Wednesday on the Green Line in Boston today.
Public transportation became a big part of my life this year. In LA I rode a bus and subway train to work. In Boston now I do the same. Often, when staring out the window on the bus or zoning out over the book in my lap, it has occurred to me that I feel so Catholic when ride public transit. Although this has been a recurring observation, I struggle to articulate why it is I feel this way. What’s so Catholic about riding the bus?
Today this feeling made sense though, at least more than usual. Soaking wet from the walk to the nearby train stop, I collapsed onto the first dry, stiff plastic seat I spotted. I was uncomfortable in the bulky, water-proof parka I had hid under outside; its fabric rustled loudly as I moved in the seat. I clumsily tried to find a place for my wet, folded umbrella and struggled to retrieve my book from purse without shaking raindrops from my coat onto everyone around me. Every moment was awkward, and everyone could see this. I felt so vulnerable.
At each stop a few more folks entered the train, and they, too, struggled with their coats and umbrellas and heavy, wet clothes. I watched them, and I realized that I was not alone. And It felt just like Ash Wednesday on that train. People from every walk of life came together to take refuge there, wearing the signs of their vulnerability–damp, droopy hair styles and rosy cheeks from the cold–like ashes on their foreheads. And we sat there wearing our weaknesses, and being present to everyone else in his or her weaknesses.
It was wet and beautiful: Ash Wednesday on a dreary Saturday morning on the Green Line.
A community needs a soul if it is to become a true home for human beings. You, the people must give it this soul.” –Pope John Paul II
I hold immeasurable gratitude for all the dear friends and family in Seattle who give this place its soul, who make this community a home for me. Thank you for your Love, and for this blessed season together.
Next blog post…from Boston!
On Thursday evening I looked over the balcony at Century Ballroom as my friends Katie and Frank danced to the final song of the night on the dance floor below. It was the last night of salsa before I head off to Boston, and the only night of the summer when the club hosts a live salsa band. (I would have liked to think the special occasion was in honor of my departure, but I know it was simply a pleasant coincidence.) Along with the best sounds the ballroom had heard all season, the live music brought out the city’s best dancers, which made for a night of both great dancing and fantastic viewing. Of all the swift spins and fast footwork displayed by the evening’s talented couples, however, the most memorable dance, in my humble opinion, was that last one danced by my friends.
The three of us have gone dancing together at least once a week all summer long. And just as I, a clumsy beginner, went from counting out every step (1-2-3—5-6-7…) to moving unthinkingly along with rhythms I instantly recognize, so too had my more experienced friends improved their dance moves. While it was unnoticeable for me when I first began dancing, I have learned that a personal dancing style accompanies this sort of progress: when one attains a certain level of familiarity with the rhythms, steps, and moves, one’s personal style—which is often a reflection of his/her personality, training, and dance community—surfaces in his/her dancing. Having danced with Katie and Frank for months now, I have gained a great affection for the idiosyncrasies of their styles. For the neat steps of Katie’s three-count turns. For the circular swing of Frank’s hands when he leads in open-position. For the expressions on their faces when they concentrate during a spin sequence, or the sympathetic grins that occasionally break when someone acknowledges a partner’s misstep.
From the ballroom balcony, I treasured every glimpse of these personal tendencies. They were small, endearing reminders that I was not simply watching salsa dancing, but Katie’s salsa and Frank’s salsa.
While watching them, it struck me that I have experienced a similar affection for friends when we celebrate Mass together. Having celebrated the liturgy for so long, we can engage it more naturally, less consciously, and our personal styles break through unthinkingly. Some of us enter the sanctuary with particular habits, or gesture in unique ways, or recite prayers with more or less words. Not unlike salsa dancing, these small stylistic differences often reflect who we are, where we come from, and the community that most often surrounds us. I love noticing these little things because it transforms Catholicism into their Catholicism, our Catholicism—Frank’s Catholicism. Katie’s Catholicism. They are reminders that, in such intimate, personal ways, Catholicism belongs to the people I love.
The basic steps are the same, but with time we all learn to dance them in our own way.
“When I lead retreats, a bell sounds to indicate our transition from one part of the day to the next. The bell sounds, and immediately we shift mental gears, moving from meditation to preparations for mealtime. What will lunch be today? Where will I sit? The bell rings, and we shift from walking meditation to preparations for a sitting meditation. Where did I leave my seat cushion? Will my aching back be a distraction during this sit? So much of life is like this–we are so quick to escape the present moment with anticipation and anxiety about what’s coming next.”
On Tuesday evening I joined my cousin for a meditation class facilitated by the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. The class commences with a 45 minute meditation sit, followed by a lesson by one of the society’s Meditation teachers. That night, the talk focused on patience, one of the ten paramis, or “qualities of character that can be developed to support the path of awakening,” in the Buddhist tradition practiced by the group. The teacher used this illustration about the bell on his retreats to demonstrate how much impatience we often have for the present moment. Mainstream perceptions of life have taught us that the present is to dismissed for what ever is next. We so hastily move from one thing to the next.
The teacher said that he has begun to ask his students to pause when they hear this transition bell at the retreat. It is an exercise in patience. Rather than eagerly fleeing the moment, they exercise attention to the present by remaining where they are while the impending transition awaits its proper time. The teacher said this intentional pause between one thing and the next is incredibly difficult for the retreatants.
This does not surprise me, for the bell has rung and I also struggle to pause in the present as I await the major impending transition in my life. It is not that I don’t want to be here in the present, in Seattle, right now. On the contrary, it is not the present that makes the pause difficult. In all honesty, I deeply wish this city and its community could remain a present reality in my life for a very long time. It is the awareness that the present is fleeting that makes it hard. It feels a bit like I imagine it would feel to fall in love with someone who was dying. It is hard to be present, to be freely, extravagantly present, to something that is simultaneously slipping away. I’m not yet enjoying the goodness that the next phase will bring, only grasping desperately at every bit of goodness I can garner out of a present that is dying its own little death.
But it is better to have loved, isn’t that right? Better, yes. But harder, too. The teacher encouraged us to recite this mantra to ourselves in moments of anxiety and impatience, “Do I have patience, even for this?” I find that when I ask myself that now, it feel so silly to reply with anything but, “Yes.” Of course I can endure the difficult patience required for this–for this home that I love so much. For the friends and family I cherish. For the opportunities afforded to me by the transition ahead. For the goodness I know I will find in Boston. Of course I have patience for this. This patience is better, yes, but harder, too.
Image from www.chrisandrephotography.com
Adam said, “I’ve wondered why a man of your knowledge would work a desert hill place.”“It’s because I haven’t the courage,” said Samuel. “I could never quite take the responsibility. When the Lord God did not call my name, I might have called His name–but I did not. There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. It’s not an uncommon disease. But it’s nice for a mediocre man to know that greatness must be the loneliest state in the world.”“I’d think there are degrees of greatness,” Adam said.“I don’t think so,” said Samuel. “That would be like saying there is a little bigness. No. I believe when you come to that responsibility the hugeness and you are alone to make your choice. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding, and on the other–cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad to chose mediocrity, but how am I to say what reward might have come with the other? None of my children will be great either, except perhaps Tom. He’s suffering over the choosing right now. It’s a painful thing to watch. And somewhere in me I want him to say yes. Isn’t that strange? A father to want his son condemned to greatness! What selfishness that must be.”