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When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them. I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition. Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”
In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica? How are you doing?”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me. That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.” I began to smile as she went on. I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me. “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that? Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”
I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church. In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church. We are blessed to have church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools. And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.
I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings. And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me. Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities. Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place. Even in our Church.
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?”
On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore. I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.
I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books. The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me of two things: First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written. Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways. Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things. Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.
I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.
I have memories of being a typically-gregarious little girl who was afraid to speak in class. Maybe it was more self-consciousness than fear. My young male peers taunted me on the basketball court at recess and inside the classroom walls–“like children do”–because I was a young female with something she wanted to say. They told me this. They explained to me my boundaries “because I was a girl.” Even though I sensed that all of us knew these were untrue, these young men said all this because it had power. It had power because we all knew it had once been thought to be true. And that was a powerful reminder. (Where do second graders learn this? Probably Nickelodeon sitcoms).
Generally speaking, I imagine these situations evoke two types of reaction: Either young females learn not to speak up in class; studies have confirmed this. Or, they start talking louder. With the impassioned cursive script of a second grader, I decided to report gender confrontation after gender confrontation in our class “Conflict” notebook, which my teacher read aloud once a week before facilitating a detailed lesson and class discussion concerning conflict resolution skills. I started talking louder.
And I’ve been loud ever since. I’m the kind of person who steps out into the middle of Boston traffic to yell at taxi drivers who spit out racist and homophobic slurs in moments of senseless road rage. I have this intense moral compass (undoubtedly learned from my mother) and I will simply shatter if I don’t speak up sometimes.
That’s why I don’t know what to do with the trembling voice and unsteady pen I have found myself with in recent times. In moments like these, I don’t recognize myself. I ask myself, “What happened to that little girl with that strong, loud voice? The young woman who believed in the potential power of her voice?” I am second-guessing my words, projecting onto myself the presumed judgements of others. I doubt whether anything I have to say could possibly make any difference for the causes I address. My voice trembles when I speak, and I struggle to silence its shaking doubt.
I keep speaking, though. I keep writing, clearly. One of my favorite quotes reads, “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” It’s from Rilke, the writer who told a young poet to keep writing when he doubted himself. I think my voice shakes these days because I have given myself to a sort of danger–to the danger of a challenging academic environment, to new friends and brilliant peers, to a world far from the comforts and tangible love of home. It feels vulnerable. But it is getting better.
I still believe that one day I will open my mouth and the words won’t shake anymore. I hope they will resound louder and stronger than before.
Until then, I’ll keep talking.
Lately each time I enter the gates of Harvard Yard from the concrete and brick of the Square, I am greeted with the opening word from Pascal’s Mémorial. The demanding red foliage of this one large tree declares, “Fire.”
Mémorial is Pascal’s cryptic account of the two-hour mystical vision he experienced one night at age 31. “Fire” begins the montage of parsed phrases, utterings of fear, wonder, reverence, and conviction. Pascal had the text sown into the lining of his clothes, which is where the account was discovered upon his death. Perhaps he brought it with him because he could not escape it. I have often found that if you listen closely, you can hear his heart racing between the words on the page.
Sometimes when I am sitting in the library here at school, I look out the large windows at the burning trees, and I think of Annie Dillard. In one of her essays she describes a moth flirting with the flame of a candle, irresistibly circling its blazing wick. The moth moves closer and closer, until it is too close; the fire consumes it. The moth is burning, but it has become the wick of the flame it so desires. Then my gaze returns to the book over which I hover. Fire.
It isn’t strange to me that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Aren’t we all met with moments of fire? “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up,” concluded Moses when he saw it (Exodus 3:3). There are moments of fire that capture us so much that we cannot cease returning to them. They are people, and experiences, and visions we must circle around; we must return to them. We must sow them into our clothes. We must give ourselves to them even if they consume us. Fire.
It is very likely that you know the story of Jesus walking on water—the one where his disciple, Peter, hops out of the safe sailing vessel to join his Rabbi atop the waves. When Peter starts to panic and sink, Jesus scolds him, asking, “Don’t you have faith?” If you’re like me, and probably most of us, you understand this story as a message about faith in Christ. If Peter trusted Jesus, he would have been able to miraculously walk on water just like his teacher. With faith in God, all things are possible.
The super hip American pastor, Rob Bell, has another interpretation of this story, however. In one of his super hip movie shorts, (one of the Nooma series), he cites Jewish rabbinic history to charge that Jesus’ question about Peter’s faith was not actually a question about faith in his teacher, as we often assume. Rather, Jesus was asking Peter, “Don’t you have faith in yourself? Faith that you can actually be like me?” Rob Bell suggests that by inviting all of humankind to be Christian disciples, disciples like Peter, Jesus was essentially communicating the radical message that God believes in us—in our ability to live good lives, and to live up to our individual callings. “Don’t you have faith Peter? I called you out here because I believe in you.”
I felt like Peter walking on the ocean today in my philosophy of religion class. As I looked up from the intimidating German names on my syllabus to the pensive faces of my anonymous classmates, and back down to those famous German names again, my faith waned and my heart began to sink.
I can’t do this. Why am I here? What was I thinking? I was drowning in self-doubt.
The thing is, I have read most of these German philosophers and theologians before. In fact, I have worked with these thinkers in classes in which I was quite successful. My fears were not rooted in a rational suspicion about my abilities as a student of philosophy and theology. They were not rooted in wise precaution. I have become self-aware enough to recognize my demons, and I know that low self-confidence is one of them. No award or grade or pat on the back has dissolved them thus far. It is going to take a deep form of self-work.
In the meantime, I find myself clinging to this fresh interpretation of that old biblical tale. Jesus has faith in me—to love my neighbor as myself and to turn the other cheek, ways of life that are simply much more difficult and demanding than the things I encounter in the classroom. If Jesus believes in my potential to do those things, then surely, it is worth having faith in my gifts as a student.
Jesus believes in me, and with time, hopefully I can too.
Check out my latest post at From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism, entitled “How We Got Here.”