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Amid these long days curled over my laptop and yellow-paged library books, I have been stepping out into the fresh air for a walk on the Labyrinth. The white-stoned, circular meditation walk rests on the edge of a grassy lawn across from the entrance of Andover, Harvard’s theology library. The Labyrinth is warm from many hours under the sun, so I often take off my shoes to feel the heat radiating from the stone. Sometimes my shoes feel as confining as the walls of the wooden study carol where I have been writing my final papers all week. The labyrinth winds back and forth from beginning to end, and no matter how many times I walk it, I find myself feeling directionless there; that’s part of what makes it effective, I think. All I can do is look down at the path carved out in the stone, place one foot in front of the other, and follow the path in front of me.
During my second week at Harvard, I sat down for dinner with one of my mentors and I confessed my excitement and anxiety about the year ahead. I had no doubt that I did not want to be anywhere but HDS; I already loved my classes and professors, and my peers were brilliant and fascinating. Still, I worried that I could not live up to the opportunity. What if I’m what this place expects? What if they don’t like my ideas, or my approach? “Just give yourself to this process!” he reassured me. “This is amazing! I’m so excited for you! Just give yourself to this process…” I’ve repeated these words a thousand times this year.
On the days when I am particularly anxious, I look up in the midst of my labyrinth walk, and I am startled, “Have I moved at all?” This is a ridiculous question, of course. I’ve been walking for the last five minutes. Yet, really and truly, there are moments when I look up at all the turns of this winding circular path and I wonder this. I don’t have the patience for it. I ache for a reminder of progress! But all that’s there is another corner to pivot—a corner that looks just like the one I passed five paces ago. I want a reminder of progress! And then—I remind myself that that is not the point.
People often ask me if I picture myself doing something other than theology in the future. Typically, I reply with something like, “Well, I’m old enough to know that life cannot be planned. So, I try to remain open. But right now, I really see myself moving in the direction of theology.” For some reason I do not tell them about the moment earlier this year when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate, Sarah. It was one of those anxious days, one when I was doubting myself again. She asked me that question about the possibility of doing something else, and I started to cry when I told her the complete truth, saying, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do…” It is not that I could not find employment, and even satisfaction, in any number of other careers. No. The truth is that I feel so deeply that this is what I am called to do, for myself and for my community, that even on the hard days I cannot see myself working toward anything else. And sometimes the calling frightens me. But it is always there, and it is so much mine that I can’t imagine leaving it.
The panicked, directionless moments are so often an occasion for reminding myself that I am moving, and that I’m exactly where I need to be. “Just give yourself to this process,” I tell myself. “One step at a time. One step. One step,” I tell myself again. When I confront my doubt with the truth of my call, I remember all the moments of epiphany this year—all the moments when I have felt more free than I ever have before—more myself, and more with God, and more with and for my people than I could have ever imagined.
The stone is warm under the soles of my feet, and I lean forward to take another step—
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?”
…Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
–an excerpt from “Power” by Adrienne Rich
On Thursday I went to an evening liturgy at the Episcopal Cathedral. Instead of extending my palms over the altar during the Eucharistic prayer as the presider had implored us to do, I attempted to wipe the tears from my cheeks without attracting the attention of the small congregation. Instead of singing and casually swaying with the melody of the communion song, I was preoccupied by the tense knot in my throat, trying to swallow it–along with all that unbridled emotion.
It was the liturgy of my dreams, right there in front of me: the liturgical prayers and rituals I loved, enacted by a community with lay and ordained ministers of every gender, sexuality, and race, language that reflected tradition while emphasizing the full and equal participation of all. All this filled me with joy and excitement–yes–but the tears were an outpouring of another kind. As I stood there amid that liturgy, I imagined what it would be like to call this my church. And I cried because I could not imagine it.
I could not imagine my church becoming this type of church, nor could I imagine leaving my tradition for the sake of calling this one my own. Even when faced with the manifestation of this seemingly ideal worship community, being Catholic–or potentially not Catholic–remained overwhelmingly complicated. There is some complicated power that binds me to Catholicism.
I do not live as Marie Currie died, denying the source of my wounds. I know it pains me at times to be in this tradition, but I also sense right now that there is a force keeping me here. Maybe I will figure it out some day, detangle myself from its mysterious pull to enter a space where I can call a liturgy like that my own. Until then…
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.
Check out my latest post at From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism, entitled “Going Home.”
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.
The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm. With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt. We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips. Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….
Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches. Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about. When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”
Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions. Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay). I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated. I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass. The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.
But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed. The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive. I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it. I could feel It. I heard It. I witnessed It in their worship.
I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time. Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself. And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.