How often do you come across a theologian who is as funny and mischievous as he is smart? I’m no scholar, but I know a good thinker when I see one, and the first time I read a sample section of James Alison’s catechetical course online I laughed out loud, and then I immediately read it again—twice. His analogy of the Church as a restaurant is so perfect, so true, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. More...
Who would have guessed that a phrase of St. Catherine’s would become, 600 years later, the refrain of a popular song: “Like a bridge over troubled waters.” Catherine used this image for Jesus in her famous spiritual testament, the Dialogue, and did not hesitate to apply it to herself. She said her mission was to be a bridge over the troubled waters of the fourteenth-century Church.
At a time when spiritual women were expected to lead hidden lives in convents, Catherine remained a laywoman and was deeply involved in the political and eccesiastical affairs of her day. Her strong personality and peculiar lifestyle scandalized many. But Catherine couldn’t care less what others though of her.
Catherine was born in Siena, Italy, in March 1347, along with a twin sister who died in infancy. She was the twenty-fourth child of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Giacomo was a quiet, gentle, doting father. He ran a successful wool-dyeing business that provided comfortably for his large family. Lapa was a loving but domineering mother given to emotional outbursts. By all accounts, Catherine grew up in a happy, if boisterous, home.
When Catherine was six years old, she had a breathtaking vision of Jesus. Walking home from a visit with her married sister Bonaventura, she looked up and saw Jesus seated on a throne. He was smiling, and his eyes were full of love as he raised his right hand and made the Sign of the Cross over Catherine. Catherine stood transfixed. When the vision disappeared, she burst into tears.
The vision changed Catherine. She grew serious and more prayerful. When she was about nine years old, she packed a small bag and sneaked out of the city, intending to live as a hermit in a cave just outside the city walls. But as soon as she had settled down to pray, her parents’ faces came to mind. Realizing how worried they would be when they found her missing, she returned home. No one had noticed her absence.
Back home, Catherine’s mother was not the least bit impressed with her daughter’s prayers and penances. Lapa was a down-to-earth, practical woman, and she had already picked out a nice Catholic husband for her daughter. She enlisted the help of Bonaventura, who took Catherine under her wing. She taught her little sister how to make up her face, how to dress stylishly, and how to dye her hair, all the while talking about boys and babies. Catherine responded with girlish excitement to her sister’s attentions.
A short while later, though, Bonaventura died in childbirth. Catherine was devastated. She had love her sister deeply — “More than God,” she later confessed. Her own preoccupation with her appearance seemed ridiculous now; with renewed fervor, she returned to her spiritual practices and began to live like a hermit.
Catherine’s neighbors thought her strange: an unsocial, morbid, fanatical young woman. Catherine did not defend herself to others. How could she describe to anyone her sweet visions of the Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints? “It would be like proffering mud in place of gold,” she once said. Not that all her spiritual experiences were golden. She endured diabolical visions, periods of darkness, and sexual temptation.
After three years of solitude, she decided to become a Dominican Tertiary—an unconventional idea, as only widows belonged to such groups back then. The Tertiaries spent long hours caring for the sick and the dying in a nearby hospital. Catherine joined them on their daily rounds, deliberately choosing to wash and nurse those patients from whom others shrank.
As Catherine mingled with the citizens of Siena, she kept a sharp eye out for those carrying heavy burdens—like the young gambler and alcoholic who entered a church with a knife and gored a religious painting. Catherine’s prayers were bold. “Most beloved Lord,” she prayed, “if you look strictly upon our sins, who will be able to escape eternal damnation? Is this why you came down from heaven and into the world, to punish us for our sins? No. You came to take away our sins and lead us to your mercy. Lord, give me back my brother!” The next morning, the young man asked to see a priest, confessed his sins, and received the Eucharist.
This dramatic conversion was followed by others. The citizens of Siena began to talk about the fiery little woman who was bending God’s ear and softening hard hearts. Catherine was overwhelmed by visitors, some merely curious to meet her, others in desperate need. She offered advice and prayers to all, and she was particularly good at mediating family feuds.
Soon she was attracting so many followers that the Dominican provincial had to appoint three priests to hear the confessions of her converts. She performed exorcisms, but she was not into hair-raising theatrics. Her exorcisms were simple and straightforward. “Be off with you,” she said to the evil spirit in one woman. “This creature belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. Never again dare to torment her.” She called the devil “that old pickpocket” because he tried to snatch souls from God.
Catherine’s sudden popularity irritated some. Her circle of followers included a few good-looking young men, which fueled ugly rumors. She was derisively nicknamed “The Queen of Fontebranda” — the name of the district where she lived. Even the Dominicans weren’t sure what to make of her. For one thing, she received Communion nearly every day, an uncommon practice in medieval times. Also, during Mass she would often fall into trance-like ecstasies that distracted other worshipers and inconvenienced the priests. Mass would be over and Catherine would be absorbed in prayer, unable to hear or see the priests who politely asked her to leave so they could lock up. More than once she was carried out of the church and deposited on the front steps by the exasperated priests.
Rumors and complaints were repeatedly brought before the Dominican Fathers. In 1374 the master general of the Order summoned Catherine to Florence for a lengthy interview. Apparently, she made a favorable impression on him. Rather than scold her or limit her freedom, he appointed a highly esteemed priest, Raymond of Capua, to be her confessor and to watch over her.
Catherine lived in a chaotic time. For seventy years the pope had been absent from Rome, occupying a sumptuous palace in Avignon, France. He and his clerical community were dismissed by non-French Catholics as puppets of the French monarchy. Catherine was convinced that Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome would stabilize the Church and bring peace to troubled Italy. But Gregory did not want to return. He was comfortable and safe in Avignon. Rumor had it that he would be killed if he tried to leave France.
Catherine wrote him repeatedly and traveled to Avignon to speak with him in person. “My sweet little Babbo,” she wrote. “Be a man. I see no other way for us and no other help in winning back your sheep that have left the fold.” Gregory stalled, but he knew Catherine was right—he had to go to Rome. In September 1376, he secretly left Avignon; four months later he made a triumphant entry into Rome. He did not adjust well to life in Italy, though; he became ill and died two years later. An Italian successor was hastily elected, Urban VI, who turned out to be an iron-fisted tyrant. The French cardinals balked. In May 1378, they abandoned Rome in protest. Urban’s response was to replace these two dozen French cardinals with new Italian cardinals. The French retaliated by electing a rival pope, Clement VII, claiming that Urban’s election was invalid. It was the beginning of the Great Western Schism.
Catherine was miserable. She felt responsible for the pitiful turn of events. If she had left Gregory alone, perhaps there would not now be two popes. “Better a pope in exile than two popes,” she said. She defended Urban and wrote angry letters to Clement’s supporters. But there was no clear “right side” in this matter: religious orders, parishes, and families were divided. Even the great saints of the era were split in their loyalties. Brigid of Sweden believed Urban VI was the “real” pope, while Vincent Ferrer sided with Clement VII.
As for Urban, the irascible lion purred when Catherine was around. “This little woman puts us all to shame,” he said to the cardinals. “We are troubled and afraid...while she is fearless.”
The schism was not Catherine’s only disappointment. For years she had lobbied in favor of a crusade that never materialized. Today we are ashamed of this violent streak on the Church’s history, but to Catherine a holy war made perfect sense as she believed it would energize the Church and unify the Italian city-states.
By the time she entered her thirties, Catherine was physically and emotionally spent. She needed every drop of spiritual energy she had left to fight her deepening despair. She believed she had failed in her mission. In fact, her work was done. In April 1380, she had a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She died eight days later, age thirty-three. The news spread quickly throughout the city, and crowds of people gathered to pray and to touch her body. Many were cured instantly: a young woman whose face had been badly disfigured by leprosy; a four-year-old boy with a deformed neck; a paralytic; an elderly man with a troublesome eye disease. Today, Saint Catherine of Siena is one of only four women Doctors of Church. Her feast is celebrated on April 29.
Reading this article by Frances Robles in the New York Times about Americans rushing to Cuba, I’m reminded of a heartbreaking moment when I returned to Cuba nearly fifty years after immigrating to the U.S.
My government-approved trip began with a few nights' stay at the iconic Habana Libre hotel. At breakfast the first morning, I poured myself a cup of coffee but could not find milk on the buffet table or anywhere in the grand dining hall. I eventually realized a single waitress was making the rounds, pouring milk from a pitcher for guests who requested it. When she reached my table, I held out my cup. She smiled and poured out a scant teaspoon of milk. I looked up, thinking she was teasing me; but she'd already turned away and was moving on to another table. Cup in hand, I was about to slip out of my chair to follow her when my breakfast companion, a frequent traveler to Cuba, clamped a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t,” she whispered. “You don’t know what it cost her to pour you that much.” She explained that this woman, who appeared to be in her late twenties, likely did not have enough milk at home for her young children due to acute shortages in Cuba.
So when I read in the New York Times that the crush of tourists is "wiping out the stores" Cubans rely on to fill their pantries — not to mention their children's bellies — I can't help but recall this moment and other troubling moments from my own trip to Cuba. I won't visit Cuba again until there's enough food for tourists and for ordinary Cubans.
The Guadalupe Event in 1531 led to the greatest mass conversion in the history of the Church. About 8 million people were baptized in the decade that followed: that averages out to several thousand converts per day. “Our Lady of Guadalupe is God’s very special gift to America at the very beginning of the New World,” writes the Mexican-American theologian Virgilio Elizondo. “It was a very special way through which Divine Providence started the incarnation of the gospel in the New World. God would not allow the gospel to become an instrument of colonization and through Guadalupe would assure that the gospel would continue to heal, liberate and unite all peoples of this hemisphere. This new unity of peoples will be America’s true gift toward the formation of a real world community.”
Today, people throughout America have a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Young people proudly wear jewelry and clothing stamped with her image, and their parents display her image in homes and businesses. Each year on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated in parishes and villages throughout North, Central, and South America with festive processions, special Masses, fireworks, music, dances and food. The Basilica of Guadalupe northeast of Mexico City receives over twenty million visitors annually.
This is the lasting gift of Our Lady of Guadalupe: that even today she brings people together with her tender and transforming message. This is her love story.
Juan Diego was born in 1474 in the district of Cuautlitlan, today part of Mexico City. Juan was a member of the Chichimeca people, one of the more advanced groups living in the Anahuac Valley. He was a hardworking farmer and a deeply spiritual man even before his conversion to the Catholic faith. Juan’s name in Nahuatl was Cuauhtlatoatzin (“the eagle who speaks”), which he changed to Juan Diego when he was baptized at age 50.
To understand the significance of the apparitions of Our Lady, it is helpful to know something of the history of the Mexican people in the sixteenth century.
The arrival in 1519 of Hernando Cortez in Mexico brought two very different ethnicities and cultures together: Spaniards and those indigenous to Mexico. It was not a friendly meeting, and historians have named it la Conquista (“the Conquest”). Those early conquistadores (“conquerors”) oppressed and enslaved the indigenous people. They also brought new diseases from Europe that wiped out huge numbers of people. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, historians estimate that about 25 million indigenous people lived in the regions we now call Mexico and Central America. Less than a century later, less than 3 million remained.
This was the setting in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.
Juan Diego was 57 years old and recently widowed at the time of the first apparition. On Saturday December 9, 1531, just before dawn, he heard singing as he passed a hill known as Tepeyac. He stopped to listen and asked himself: “Am I dreaming?" The song was “very mellow and delightful.”
Suddenly, the singing ceased and he heard a voice calling sweetly, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” He felt drawn to the voice, and climbed the hill to see who was calling him. He saw a young brown-skinned woman in flowing robes. “Her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembled an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow.”
Juan Diego bowed before the Lady, who spoke to him tenderly in his native language — Nahuatl — not in the Spanish of the European conquerors. She asked him where he was going. He answered that he was going to her church in Tlatilolco to receive instruction from a priest. The woman then identified herself as “Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live.” She asked him to inform Don Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Bishop of Mexico, that she wanted a “little house” or temple (teocalli) to be constructed on the hill of Tepeyac. “Here I will give all my love, my help and my protection to the people…I am your compassionate mother, and I am the mother of all the people who live as one in this land, and of all the people of different ancestries who cry to me, who seek me, who trust in me.”
Juan Diego was likely in a daze as he made his way to the bishop’s palace. Barefoot and wearing the humble clothes of a countryman, he presented himself to the palace servants and asked if he could see the bishop. After a long wait, he was admitted to the bishop’s quarters. He knelt before the bishop and told him about the beautiful Lady and her message for him. The bishop listened politely, but it was obvious to Juan Diego that the bishop did not believe him.
Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and found the Lady from heaven waiting for him. He explained that he had done exactly as she had asked, but to no avail. He begged the Lady to entrust her message to a more important person, someone well-known and respected. “I am a nobody,” he said, “I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf…and you send me to a place I would never visit.”
But the Virgin insisted that he was the one chosen to convey her message, even though she could indeed call upon others. She asked him to return to the bishop again the next day. “Tell him again that I, in person, the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God, sent you.”
On Sunday, Juan Diego again set out before dawn to attend Mass in Tlatilolco, then went directly to Bishop Zumárraga’s palace. He repeated his message again and patiently answered the bishop’s questions about the Lady’s appearance and details of the meeting. Still, the bishop was not convinced. The interview ended with the bishop requesting proof of the Lady’s words. Juan Diego agreed to ask the Lady for a sign the next day.
The Miracle of the Tilma
But Juan Diego could not journey to Tlatilolco the following day because his uncle fell seriously ill. Toward nightfall, as his condition deteriorated, his uncle begged him to get a priest so that he could make a final confession.
Early in the morning of Tuesday, December 12, Juan Diego set out to get a priest for his uncle. As he approached Tepeyac, he changed his route so as to avoid meeting the Lady. He did not wish to be distracted from his important errand. But the Lady descended from the hilltop and intercepted him. He apologized to the Lady, explaining that he would come again tomorrow after attending to the spiritual needs of his dying uncle. Mary replied, “Hear me and understand well, my little son: nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now of it. Be assured that he is now cured.”
She then instructed Juan Diego to climb to the top of the hill and gather the flowers that he would find growing there. It was a strange request since flowers did not grow on the hillside in winter: it was too cold, and even in summer only weeds would grow in the craggy soil.
But upon reaching the summit, Juan was dazzled by the brilliant colors and perfume of a bountiful array of Castilian roses. He cut them and gathered them in his tilma—a rough cloak made of fibers of the maguey cactus—and carefully carried them down the hill to the Lady. The Lady rearranged the flowers in his tilma and gave him final instructions for the bishop.
His confidence restored, Juan Diego returned to Bishop Zumarraga’s palace. He entered the bishop’s quarters and knelt down as he usually did. He said, “Sir, I did what you ordered. I told the Lady from heaven, Holy Mary, precious Mother of God, that you asked for a sign so that you might believe me that you should build a temple where she asked it to be erected. She graciously granted your request.”
He then unfolded his tilma, and the exquisite, fragrant flowers spilled at the feet of the bishop.
This was miracle enough, but it was the second miracle that caused the bishop to fall to his knees: a stunning image of the Lady from heaven appeared on the inside of Juan Diego’s tilma. Overcome with emotion, Bishop Zumarraga prayed and begged Juan Diego to forgive him for not having believed him sooner. Then he rose to this feet, gently untied the tilma from Juan Diego’s neck, and reverently placed it in his private chapel. That evening, Juan Diego stayed in the bishop’s palace. The next day, they visited Tepeyac hill together so the bishop could see the exact place where Mary wanted him to build a temple.
This time, the bishop lost no time answering Mary’s request. He immediately ordered the construction of an adobe chapel atop Tepeyac Hill, which was dedicated on December 26th of that same year. The sacred image was transferred to Tepeyac for public veneration and became known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
In fact, the Nahuatl word the Lady had used to identify herself was Coatlaxopeuh, which means, “she who crushes the serpent.” The Spaniards who heard Juan Diego’s story could not understand or say this name, but it sounded vaguely similar to Guadalupe, the name of a town in Spain known for its Marian shrine. Thus, the name Guadalupe was attached to the Virgin’s appearances.
The hill of Tepeyac where Mary appeared, located just outside present-day Mexico City, was once the site of a temple where Aztecs, who practiced human sacrifice, worshiped their goddess Tonantzin. Although the temple had been destroyed in 1521, the indigenous, especially those oppressed by the Aztecs, may have feared Tepeyac. It remained a well-known place; thus the Virgin’s appearance announced the arrival of God in the heart of a people’s history and culture. No part of this new continent, nothing in its own violent past, would be untouched by the divine.
Within a short period of time, six million indigenous people were baptized as Christians.
The canonization of Juan Diego on July 31, 2002, was a powerful moment for the people of Mexico. His canonization affirms the Virgin of Guadalupe and the indigenous people of the Americas as God’s messengers of Good News.
CELEBRATING THE FEAST
Feast Day Traditions
Every December 12, people throughout the Americas celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with music, dancing, and food. Children dress up in traditional clothing – the young girls in beautiful multicolored skirts or dresses with colorful ribbons in their hair; the boys as little “Dieguitos” in serapes, sandals, straw hats and painted mustaches.
Some people decorate their cars or trucks with flowers and process behind a painting of the Virgin to their church. A special Mass is often held at midnight or the break of dawn to serenade Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Traditional Song to Our Lady of Guadalupe
Mañanitas are traditional Mexican songs that people sing early in the morning on birthdays and other special days.
Las Mañanitas Guadalupanas
Traditional Mexican melody (19-20th c.)
of the valley of Anahuac the loveliest maid,
your children come together
to greet you at break of day.
Awaken, dearest Mother,
see, the dawn begins to glow;
Already the birds are singing,
and the moon has gone below.
Mother to us Mexicans
you said you came to be;
just how much we’ve learned to love you,
Dark-skinned One, you now can see.
Awaken, dearest Mother,
see the dawn begin to glow;
see the garlands of our flowers
that today we bring to you.
Yes, waken, little Mother,
see the breaking of the dawn;
see, O Queen, your two volcanos,
tinted red by early sun.
Gently spoke you to Juan Diego:
Where go you, O child of mine?"
while upon his coarse-spun tilma
you impressed your features fine.
Yes, awaken now, O Mother,
and reveal your gentle face,
and upon our hearts imprint
the lasting beauty of your grace.
Hear us, O Guadalupana,
as we sing these morning songs;
your Native People sing them
with a love both deep and strong.
In the chill of early morning,
on the hillside frost still clinging,
from the branches of the cedars
all the birds to you are singing.
O brilliant Morning-star,
when you appeared on Tepeyac,
you shed light on Juan Dieguito
on his humble daily path.
Juan Diego was walking one morning
when you came down from the clouds;
the angels formed a chorus,
cherubs round you sang aloud.
You spoke to Juan Dieguito:
"Gather roses over there
upon the hilltop yonder.
They’ll be fragrant, fresh and fair!"
O brilliant Morning-star...
Juan Diego gathered the roses
with attention and with care;
so fresh were they, he hastened
to the bishop’s house afar.
Yet little did he imagine
that the face of his beloved
was already imprinted
on his cloak so rough and rugged.
O Light so brightly shining,
Virgin-maid of heavenly grace,
shine your light on us, your children,
guide us on our earthly way!
Awaken, dearest Mother,
and hear your people sing;
fervently we sound your praises,
with full hearts our voices ring.
Now the dawn at last has broken,
nightingales their voices raise,
and with love for you, your people
form a choir to sing your praise.
Ah, waken, little Mother,
see how dawn is all aglow,
hear the throbbing teponaztle
which awakes our world below!
[English translation reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1978-2000 Juan Pedro Gaffney, Coro Hispano de San Francisco, 1403 28th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122]
PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of God,
you blessed Mexico and all the Americas
by your appearance to Juan Diego.
Pray for us, help us always trust God,
and inspire us to be messengers of hope in the world.
Bless our families and hear our prayers,
especially those we make at this moment (mention your request).
We pray all this in the name of your Son Jesus.
MEXICAN CRAFT: PAPEL PICADO
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico there was already a tradition of paper making that was called amatl in Nahuatl. The people of Mexico produced a type of paper by mashing the pulp of the bark of fig and mulberry trees between rocks. Once dry, the paper was then cut with knives made from obsidian.
Making Simple Papel Picado
Fold a rectangular piece of paper in half. In pencil, sketch one half of a design on one of the folded halves. You can use a ruler or other tools and aids to draw your design. Remember that designs must touch and connect to other areas of the paper to create the positive shapes on the paper. You can shade the areas that you will cut away.
Use scissors or a craft knife to carefully cut away negative areas of the design (cut over cardboard if using craft knives). Open slowly, flatten, and glue to a background paper. To create more complex designs, fold the paper more than once. Try using different kinds of paper: butcher paper, fadeless colored paper, origami paper, and colored tissue paper.
The Benedictine sister, author, and international lecturer talks about evolutionary theology, contemplative prayer, and the greatest evil in today’s world. First published in August 2013 in Tui Motu magazine, New Zealand. www.tuimotu.org/
Never mind that she has a dozen honorary doctorates and a dizzying number of international awards, nor that she lectures alongside some of our generation’s spiritual supernovas, like the Dalai Lama. Joan Chittister, the globetrotting Benedictine nun and prolific author from Erie, Pennsylvania, is worth watching for the same reason any serious Christian is worth watching. She’s a transformed person, and transformed people have a habit of transforming other people.
Joan is a social psychologist with a doctorate in communications theory and a contemplative’s keen eye. To many, she is a beacon of hope. Be forewarned, though: this is not your grandma’s holycard kind of hope. Joan is pious — six decades in a convent will do that to you — but her piety is laced with the potent, wildly exciting insights of modern science.
Some will warn you to keep your distance from “that radical, feminist nun.” Don’t mind them. Read her words and decide for yourself if this woman is dangerous or delightful. As Joan herself puts it, “We sisters are not radical. We are highly traditionalist. All of us. That’s what got us where we are. We are not where we are because we don’t believe what we were taught. We are here because we do believe it.”
Joan was interviewed for Tui Motu via Skype from Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie that she founded and directs. She also serves as cochair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, and she is a regular columnist for the U.S. newspaper National Catholic Reporter.
Question 1: You’ve been speaking about theology and evolution lately. Can you tell us about that?
Science has become one of the spiritual teachers of our era. We’re living in a completely different world now from when I was a child. We have to ask ourselves, Who is God in an evolutionary world?
We have to get over our old ways of thinking about heaven, hell, and maturity. For example, you don’t tell a seven year old child, “You cannot sin.” You tell them to try not to sin, but you have to know that they will make mistakes because evolution is quite clear: mistakes are built right into the process of our growing. Mistakes are there so we can become more mature tomorrow than we are today. We need to have the wisdom to recognize that because of our failings, we have learned a great deal about life. We’re called to take that learning and to become more and more grounded in the love of God and in the following of Jesus.
So we’re moving, you see, from one world and the spirituality that it engendered — so much pain, and a very rigorous, even neurotic acceptance of asceticism — into a cosmos that is pure delight, all about possibility and development. In that new spirituality, creation is a workinprogress and God shares responsibility for the work with the human race. Our job is to make the earth just like the “Our Father” says: as close to heaven as we can get it.
Question 2: So you have hope for the future?
Yes. But we have to stop thinking in terms of systems and begin to think in terms of ongoing creation. We’re all here as cocreators. God left the world unfinished so you and I could do our part. If we don’t step forward, there will be holes in this life. When we are one with God’s creative intention and activity, then we’re moving into holiness. That is sanctity. That is the beginning of union with God.
It’s a wonderful moment to be alive! But soon we’ll begin to see gaps between a theology of the past and a theology of the future. In the theology of the past, it’s all about me. It’s a kind of spiritual narcissism that places us at the center of the universe and describes God as a ‘gotcha’. God who waits for us to make a mess of things so we can be condemned to hell forever. But the theology of the future describes God as a summoning God who is saying, Grow! Grow! Follow me and grow! Find me. Come. I’m waiting for you. I’m right here. I’m with you. I’ll help you. You have nothing to fear. We’re in this together because you and I are going together now, creating this world.
Question 3: If readers are moved by your words, where can they go to learn more?
My monastery! Seriously, I believe religious communities have a lot to share. Many of them are taking in lay people now, and there’s such a nice movement between us. People visit monasteries and experience the depth of the spiritual life there, and then they take it out; they carry it back to their own parishes, their neighborhoods, their families. So my advice is: Find an intentional community near you. Find a group whose members are talking about technology and exploring the new demands being made by scientific and social changes.
For example, when I was a little kid we were taught that you couldn’t go into somebody else’s church because that would be a mortal sin. Now, we are beginning to realize that we’re all in this together, and that our respect for one another is biblical. You and I have a lot to learn from the Jewish tradition, the Protestant tradition, the Buddhist tradition, and the Hindu tradition. We have much to learn about the Face of God from the many faces God has taken in this world.
Life is rich with God, thick with God, full of God. God is not here to terrify us, to drive us away, to destroy us, to ignore us, or to make us suffer. God says, “I have come that you may have life — and have it more abundantly.” That’s where it’s at. That’s where God is.
Question 4: What is the role of religious life today?
There’s something about religious life, especially religious life for women, that is yet to be completely understood. The role of religious life is always to live the gospel at the grassroots, to be where the people are, to be where the issues are, and to be more concerned about the gospel on the streets of the world than about the custody of institutions.
The liturgy of the church belongs to the church itself, and the sacraments of the church are priestly acts. But the role of religious is to be a bridge between the streets and the sacristies. To take the sacristy to the streets, and to bring the people in the streets to the sacristy. That is our spirituality.
Question 5: How does your own Benedictine community reach out to people on the streets?
When the murder rate began to rise in Erie, the Benedictine Sisters began a street liturgy in Erie called “Take Back the Site” to honor homicide victims and to “reconsecrate to life” the land where the bodies had been found. If your son was murdered on 9th and Ash, for example, the sisters went there with as many people as they could gather, and they held a prayer service, a “living liturgy” of psalms, hymns and prayers for the family.
Now, hundreds of people come, and two other religious communities have joined us. Families look forward to it, because it is publicly comforting to them in the face of their public humiliation and pain.
Question 6: Can you say more about prayer?
All I know about prayer is that it gets deeper and more real every day. We Benedictines say that the contemplative is the person who sees the world the way God sees the world. Prayer comes through the eyes. What do you see when you look at the world? When you try to see the world as God sees the world, you open yourself to the movement of the spirit, the presence of God.
In the Scriptures, you see Jesus walking from Galilee to Jerusalem healing the sick, contending with the officials, and raising the dead. He did not allow despair to take over. He did not leave death in his path. He raised death every time he saw it. And he has not stopped. He has not stopped because he now functions in us. So when you see the world as God sees the world, when you see the trip from the temple to the street through the eyes of Jesus, then you’re very, very aware of the movement of the spirit, the presence of God. That is prayer.
Question 7: In times of struggle, what helps you remain faithful?
I really believe in the Holy Spirit, and I really believe in creation. I believe that some of us who are at turning points in history, moved by the spirit and committed to an ongoing creation, will suffer dearly for that commitment. Some will indeed be rejected and declaimed. I have no doubt about it, because that’s the nature of change.
But having said that, I do not think of us as a people of the cross. I think of us as a people of the empty tomb. Alleluia people. People who go through whatever you have to go through to be part of the salvation story. I believe that if your heart knows something is right, or your mind knows something is true, and you act out of love, refusing to attack anyone, in the end it will be right.
You start by assuming that everyone wants what you want, but others might see the way forward differently. And that’s all right. We have fourteen Rites in the Roman Catholic Church, because we have forever recognized the fact that people often come to the same truth by different means.
Question 8: More personally, what do you, Joan, cling to in tough times?
The New Testament. The Jesus story and my real honesttoGod belief that there is a God, here present, with me, with you, in us, and leading us on. We’re stumbling, we’re making a terrible mess of things, we take one step forward and ten steps back — but I get up every morning to reclaim those steps I lost.
Oh, I get tired. I get weary. I get frustrated. But at the same time, every day of my life — well, not every day, but from a certain point in my life when I became conscious of these things in a very personal way — I have never ceased to know the presence of God. And I know it partly because of my religious community. We always maintain that the strength of the Erie Benedictines is that we are never all down at the same time. There’s always somebody “dragging us up” to where we were before!
Question 9: From a global perspective, what do you think is the most dangerous heresy or evil facing the world today?
I think the greatest evil starts with the suppression of any peoples. When any group feels that they have the right to destroy, enslave, suppress, or ignore any other part of the human race, God is not there.
I do a lot of work with women, and when you look around and realize what is happening to the women of the world because they are women—because someone, somewhere, has decided that women need less, want less, or deserve less — that has to be evil. That has to be wrong. I don’t care what reason you give for it: once you refuse to allow other human beings to develop to the fullness of themselves, that’s the epitome of evil. And it is residual in every single society. You can call it by any name you want — racism, sexism, classism — that is the great evil that we perpetrate on one another. And if you and I sit back and say nothing about it, we’re part of it.
Question 10: You’ve been described as a prophet and a mystic. I wonder what you think of that.
I believe that we’re all called to union with God. I believe that we’re all called to speak the word of God in ungodly places and to ungodly situations. So my answer is that we’re all called to be prophets and mystics. The important thing is that you know who you are at all times. Be who you are at all times! Never let any words seduce or confuse you. Put the center of your heart in the hands of God and you will be fine.
Interview by Alicia von Stamwitz
I don’t always say it out loud, but I think it every once in a while. “Why me? What did I do to deserve __________ ?” You can fill in the blank with your own particular burden. Funny thing: even though it looks like a question, it’s not really a question. It’s a lament, an existential moan. I don’t expect an answer. What I want is sympathy; someone to wallow with me in my gushing well of self-pity.
Imagine my shock, then, when shortly after I’d muttered these words one day, a total stranger looks me in the eye and says, “Seriously? Get over yourself, Alicia.” More here...
After my mind-blowing encounter with Palestinians and Israelis on a 2010 trip to the Holy Land, I have kept abreast of news from the region. Never has it been so painful as it is now. Sparked by the brutal murders of one Palestinian teen and three Israeli teens, the conflict seems to intensify every hour.
I study photographs of the boys—Mohammed, Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal—all gangly growth and goofy smiles, smooth cheeks and pimply foreheads, then fix my gaze on their beautiful, blameless eyes. I want to scream. Why, God? Why? More here...
Sometimes, you know what you have to do before you know why you should do it, before you have thoughts or words. For several months, I’ve been thinking about how to relate to my 38-year-old former pastor. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison this year, after admitting that he had child pornography on his computer and cellphone. Before he was arrested, I had a warm relationship with my pastor. He had done much good for the parish. We were on the school board together. We chatted after Mass. He has sent me letters from prison, but I have not responded; not yet. I don’t know what to say. More here...
Jim Olson, a pediatric oncologist, was interviewed on National Public Radio earlier this year. The program was about science, not religion, which only makes his story more striking.
Dr. Olsen explained on the program, “A child who is going to die from their cancer isn't mourning the high school prom that they're not going to get to go to. They're not mourning the fact that they won't drive their first car. For a child, it's about, Am I happy? Are my parents happy? Is a cute dog going to come in and visit me at 2 o'clock in the afternoon? It's all about that moment, that day.” More here...
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary. This is surprising, because I’ve never been “into” Mary. Or rather, I’m just not into traditional Marian piety. The Marian virtues hailed throughout my childhood annoyed me, and she looks so weak and pasty in most of those old holy cards. Even the celebrated paintings of Mary, weeping and fainting at the foot of the cross, fail to move me. I feel sorry for Mary, yes; but I never cottoned to her like I did to Jesus.
Then, last week, I read a passage in Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s new book, Sacred Fire, that forced me to revise my image of Mary. Rolheiser tells us that many great artists got the crucifixion scene wrong. The gospel writers clearly tell us that Mary “stood” close to the cross, indicating a position of strength and power. They never describe Mary as prostrate or keening. More here...
I’ve always loved the poetic “O Antiphons” we say each year to close the Advent season. I can’t seem to get enough of them, and I’ve occasionally created a few extras to pray on my own.
Just before Lent this year, while reading the Billy Collins poem “Aimless Love,” it occurred to me that I could start a parallel Lenten tradition. This Lent, I am creating and praying my very own “Ah” Antiphons; that is, verses that mark a moment of insight, awe, or appreciation. I’m also doing the traditional Lenten things, like fasting and service, but I have a feeling that writing an Ah Antiphon each day might end up being the practice with the most punch. More here...