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“Can you believe that we are looking into the tails of galaxies? That’s what they are, right?” I walked a few paces ahead of Sarah and Ty as I listened to them marvel at the sky. We trudged through the damp vineyard, our boots belching as they moved in and out of the thick mud. It was almost easier to navigate our path by sound than by sight that night. The moon had somehow disappeared; perhaps she hid behind those ubiquitous clouds that brand our Pacific Northwest winters. Whatever the case, it made for fantastic stargazing. Millions of miles away, they glisten far brighter than any distant city lights we could still make out.
“Sometimes when I look up at the stars, I stop thinking. It’s just—too big.”
I grinned as I eavesdropped on their wonder-filled exclamations. It occurred to me that anything anyone ever says about the beauty of the stars usually sounds trite to me. But as my mind wondered off, I realized that this wasn’t really the case this time: the sky did look absolutely incredible from where we stood. And it was just too big. There was something about the stars that night that was more beautiful than I could grasp—too beautiful, more incredible than I had remembered them ever seeming before.
It had been nearly a year since I spent any significant amount of time back in the Seattle area. Between full-time studies and summer school, and a handful of part-time jobs to juggle at any given time, there was not much vacation in the last year. Not much time for stargazing. So I wondered if the stars looked brighter because it had been so long since I looked at them from outside the buzzing Northeastern urbanscape I now call home.
And then, I wondered if it had simply been so long since I looked up at them from anywhere. Just as distance makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps my leave from stargazing afforded this momentary, cosmic bedazzlement. Maybe the stars weren’t really that beautiful; they were simply more striking that night because they were more foreign than before. Simple enough.
Then, I wondered whether they are always this breath taking, yet I just shrug off the wonder of the stars as a justification for my own narrow-sightedness. What if they are always shining like this, and I just don’t raise my gaze high enough to see them? Maybe the stars are this brilliant in Boston too, I thought to myself, and I just haven’t been looking up as often.
Our muddy path opened up to a look-out with a few benches. Shivering a bit as the nighttime breeze encircled us, I sat down on the damp wood and reclined onto my back. My shoulders relaxed and opened against the hard surface beneath me. And it was silent for sometime. And I stopped wondering why all of us were staring up at the most amazing scene of stars.
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?”