This week, in an effort to respond to my developing vocation, I founded two websites: theakoinonia.org and theapress.org. I invite you to take a look. I'd say a word about them, but they speak for themselves. ♥
Advent has begun again--a new liturgical year is upon Christianity.
Lent has long been my favorite liturgical season, but I think last year was the first year I claimed Advent as my favorite. Advent is a time of anticipation, of ready-making, of way-preparing. It is a time of taking stock and of emptying hearts of their ashes so that new light may be born in them.
This Advent, I bring myself in total openness to the unknown that this season promises. I have relinquished all the plans I once laid out for myself. I have turned vulnerably toward my God, Thea, who beckons me into what is new and not very comfortable. I have committed to a fresh start, a new beginning.
Elizabeth A. Hawksworth is a published poet and historical fiction writer as well as a prominent blogger on topics of feminism, body positivity, fatphobia, writing, nannying, social justice, and spirituality. She is bold in writing about issues of ultimate concern when remaining silent and unnoticed would be, in the moment, easier. Here is part of her story.
A few hours north of Sarnia, Ontario, there is a quiet place nestled in a forest. Built with rustic logs, smelling like pine pitch, and surrounded by acres of misty trees, this small building stands, institutional and peaceful; utilitarian and somehow unique. In its natural surroundings, staring at a painting of the Baby Jesus, I found God.
Prayer, for me, has been a way to get through everyday life. I pray for health. I pray to be a better person. I pray for my family, my friends. I pray for things I want, things I don’t deserve, things I’m desperate about, things I can’t deal with. It’s not a fancy prayer. It’s often a mantra, repeated over and over, sometimes under my breath, sometimes out loud, sometimes mouthed in public places, and sometimes earnestly in the dark. And I pray every night, without fail, before I can close my eyes and sleep. I have to touch base. I have to let Him know. I need You. Please help me.
In that church retreat, hidden in the woods, I learned how to pray for more than just myself. I unlocked the talent I had all along – the talent of being able to use my words to change the world for the better. And I never felt closer to God, or more powerful with Him through me than I did then – creating creeds, weaving poetry, sharing with everyone my own personal faith, placing my feet on the path to social justice. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I didn’t think I would ever be able to part from my relationship with God.
How things change.
I was badly wounded by the Church when I was a teenager. Shy, uncertain, and angry, I was struggling with my own sexuality and my sense of being. Holding hands with God, or so I thought, I faced the people who, also holding hands with God, told me that I didn’t belong. That I would burn in hell. That I was a sinner, a deliberate sinner, one who was so full of pride and bravado and hubris and lies, that I would never be welcome unless I changed who I was at the core. I had grown up solid in my belief that God makes us in His perfect image, and never makes mistakes. Now, I wasn’t sure if I was wrong, or if they were, but my hurt overwhelmed my faith.
I went back at 18, denying who I was. I joined a church of beauty and majesty, of tradition as old as time, and restrictions worse than any other church I’d ever been to. Was it punishment for the supposed sin of who I thought I was? To this day, I can’t answer that. All I know is that everywhere I turned, I found leaders, church members, even the Bible itself, it seemed, telling me that the person I am would never be good enough for God.
So I left. And I tried to forget.
I’m a rational person, most of the time. I also hold grudges, long after I should. And the hurt faded into twinges and then roared back to life in explosive, fiery anger. I wanted to hurt the Church the way it had hurt me. I wanted to hurt God. I wanted to burn in hell the way they said, just so that I could be myself without pretense, so I could live in sin without consequence and guilt.
And inside, I cried out for the God I knew in that quiet forest retreat. I begged Him to help me. I pushed Him away with both hands while simultaneously crying for Him in the night. And to His credit, He hasn’t let me go, though most days, I continue to angrily push and push and push, as hard as I can. He has forgiven me and continues to forgive me, despite all of my anger and moral failings, despite my hurt and my pride. He has quietly proven over and over that He thinks I am good enough for Him.
Knowing this, I suspect that one day, I will heal completely from my scars and from my open, bleeding wounds, the way that even the biggest wounds do heal. The scars will always hurt a little, but they won’t always be open and raw, ready to bleed again at another article about Christians saying “God hates fags”, or someone telling me that you can’t be Christian and gay.
But here’s the thing about healing. When you forgive someone, you don’t do it for them – not really. They benefit from it. They may think that you are doing them a favour. And maybe, part of healing is to acknowledge that you acted wrongly, too, even if at the time, you don’t think you did. Maybe part of it is to be like God, and not push away your fellow human, even if that fellow human has done cutting, horrible things to your psyche and to your sense of self.
The thing about healing is that forgiveness is mostly for you. It’s to reach out with your own humanity and be the bigger person. It doesn’t mean you forget, and it doesn’t mean that you have to draw that person back into your heart. What it does mean is that where the rushing, raging rivers have broken the bridge of faith, forgiveness helps to place new planks, to tie the knots back into the ropes. Where the bridge has rotted in places, forgiveness places brand new materials to make your bridge stronger than ever before. Where the bridge is shaky, forgiveness helps to steady it so that when you walk across it and try to meet God on the other side, it’s not so hard and scary to cross it.
Because when it comes to healing, it might take awhile. It might take a long time to rebuild your bridge. And I’m not saying that someone isn’t going to come along and say cutting things that will throw it into disrepair. I’ve rebuilt my bridge many times now . . . and I’ve begged God to help me find the strength to do it again.
Your bridge isn’t just to God. Your bridge is to your fellow humans, as well. The ones that put up walls to keep others out – your bridge goes to their door and invites them to come and meet you in the middle. The ones that tell you you’re not welcome – your bridge goes to them and tells them that they are welcome to come and belong with you. And the ones that meet you with hatred – your bridge shows them that the easier path is love.
Because maybe the place you’re all trying to reach is that little church retreat in the woods, with the whispering leaves and the distant rush of the many creeks. Maybe the path you all want to walk is the shady wide dirt path with the dappled sunlight through the trees, that wide and welcoming path that has benches to rest on and clear pools to drink from. Maybe the paths we choose are inevitably the harder ones because the stony paths teach you what smooth footing feels like, and we have to learn, in order to grow.
Maybe the pain and the blood are something we all experience, even when we’re the ones wielding the swords that hurt. And maybe when it comes to healing, you find it in the silence and the dark, the pleas and the desperation, the fact that when you couldn’t walk anymore, He carried you – and carries you still.
Maybe when it comes to healing, it becomes the easier path to take – broken bridge, and all.
I'm sorry she says softening her tone averting her gaze shifting her posture willing the other to see that she means no harm I'm sorry she says when she actually means Pardon me -or- No, thank you -or- Here's what I think about it I'm sorry she says when it's the other person who screwed up, caused harm, bears blame the other person who offered what she doesn't need or want the other person who just heard her apologize for no good reason and is no longer interested I'm sorry she also says on the rare occasion when her apology has merit Why does she hide behind that simpering sorry? Is it fitting to say sorry in a crowd that seeks her vision rather than to say what she means? Is it fitting to say sorry to a man in order to submit in the way she expects he expects when young women are watching every move she makes? Is it honest to say sorry to a challenger rather than to speak forth the prophetic fire that blazes within her? Why does she say sorry, sorry, sorry when so little of what she does deserves her easy self-deprecation self-humiliation self-abasement? What if she stopped watering down her virtue and instead
began her day with a strong cup of I'm not sorry ? (What a HERE I AM, LORD that would be) ~~~ The above is inspired by two people I respect who recently asked me, on separate occasions, why I say sorry when I do. I have long regarded "I'm sorry" as a gesture of hospitality in tense or difficult situations, but I am beginning to rethink that. I am grateful to my gentle adversaries for inviting me to see beyond my limited vision of what genuine hospitality might look like from a (female) leader.
If you've never had the experience of participating in a spiritual discernment committee, I invite you to consider it. After my fifth (and final) meeting with my discernment committee for priesthood yesterday evening, my committee confirmed that they heard my call to priesthood. And that's not even the extraordinary part. The extraordinary part is that, as I prayed yesterday before my meeting, I prayed for total surrender to God's will, and for the faithfulness not to run if that will was something my ego didn't like. My total surrender granted me total, deep, quieting peace. The extraordinary part is that, having let go of my attachment to the outcome of my discernment process, I happened to read (during evening prayer) the story in Matthew about the disciples who wanted to know why they couldn't heal the sick on their own when Jesus so easily could. Jesus told them it was because they lacked faith, and that if they had faith even the size of a mustard seed, mountains would move for them. And I realized at that moment that my mustard seed faith was what had moved the mountain of my ego in order to make a straight path for Spirit to enter and dwell deep within my heart. The extraordinary part is that, despite having a clear sense of call when I walked into the process, my sense of call widened and deepened and became more rooted as the dialogue went on.
The extraordinary part is that, especially in the final two meetings, as I listened to the challenging questions of my committee members, I perceived Spirit doing the asking. And as I offered my vulnerable, open-hearted answers, I perceived Spirit speaking through me. (It's fair to say that I've never experienced God's voice speaking to me so powerfully as I have in my discernment committee meetings, and for a Benedictine who hears God speaking to her through liturgy and scripture and encounters with others all the time, that's saying a lot.)
The extraordinary part is that, despite my Enneagram-three-personality-type's desire to manage a situation in such a way that the outcome is "positive," I was required to relinquish my ability to do that in order to speak plainly and truthfully. I was painfully aware that my deep honesty could at any moment result in the humiliation of my ego, and I spoke anyway. In that total risk of my ego, I realized it was not my ego that spoke, but Spirit.
When I walked out of my meeting last night, I had no idea what my committee members had heard. I didn't know what they would say. My three-ish ability to anticipate the outcome of the process failed me spectacularly. And I perceived in my failure the possibility of God's success--success in finding a way to make use of the quirky instrument that I am.
My committee is passing me on to the next steps of the discernment process, steps that will be challenging in their own ways. What my committee heard may not be confirmed by the next folks I encounter in the discernment process. But what happens next is not my concern.
The most important piece to emerge for me from this discernment process is the profound recognition that my heart--my whole heart--belongs to the one I call God. Whatever comes, I know that I will be faithful to the path God has prepared for me. I won't turn away. This is God's gig, and I am God's beautiful, imperfect instrument.
What song(s) will God choose to play through me for the uplifting, healing, and reconciling of her creation?
This evening I meet with my vicar about the discernment process for priestly ordination. As my best friend and I were discussing this last night, she commented that I sounded grounded in my understanding of who I'm called to be. This grounding, this rootedness, is what inspires me to pursue a call to pastoral leadership. There's an important shade of difference between what I hear myself being called to be and what I feel naturally inclined to be. Leading for leading's sake doesn't feel comfortable to me. It feels awkward and threatening to my oh-so-precious ego. The only times in my life when I have felt comfortable leading have been those times when I bring some expertise, some gift, some knowledge that others lack or otherwise need me to exhibit. Nearly all the occasions when I've been called to leadership have something in common: they've had to do with spiritual life, religious practice, and the deep-hearted, skillful care of others. I walk into this conversation not with a sense of natural-born leadership, but cultivated leadership. I am prepared to speak the truth of who I am called to be, knowing what I have dared to embrace, despite (or perhaps because of) deep introversion, in the past thirty-one years. What will my vicar hear as I speak openly, bravely, and truthfully about what I hear God calling me to? What will I hear as I let my God-given words pour out?
After indulging in Shrove Tuesday pancakes and Mardis Gras beads, we enter the first day of Lent: Ash Wednesday. Millions will travel to churches today to be marked with the ash of last Palm Sunday's palm fronds, marking a stark entrance into the liturgical season of abstinence, repentance, and alms-giving. During this season of Lent, I would like to offer you my prayers. If you feel so moved, please leave a comment here asking for a particular kind of prayer. I will light a candle at the St. James Chapel of St. Augustine Church in honor of each prayer request I receive. I invite you, in return, to offer a prayer for someone else, lighting a candle of your own. Perhaps, by the Easter Vigil, our candle-lit prayers will have illumined the whole world.
Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday/Mardis Gras in the Christian tradition. Time to use up whatever remains in the larder, because pretty soon we'll be fasting.... Well, actually, I don't have a larder. I don't even have lard. But I am Christian, and Lent starts on Wednesday, and I will be fasting. This will be my first Lent as a member of my Benedictine Canon community. My daily prayers in this community have brought me to a profound awareness of my sisters and brothers who suffer. There are countless people in the world at this very moment who are oppressed, in danger, starving, naked, or enslaved. I find myself asking what I can do to be in solidarity with all my sisters and brothers who suffer. I'm not in a position to save the world; nor am I in a position to save even one person. I'm no savior. But the one I acclaim as savior is someone whose behavior I can emulate. I can, in my twenty-first-century middle-class American context, step away from my everyday life and take on a journey that isn't surrounded by easy comfort. It seems silly to do this, mainly because it is my choice to do so. What does it mean to choose to make a sacrifice if I can always choose at any moment to turn back to the way things were? I'm always operating from the privilege of my ability to choose, and in that sense my sacrifice is folly. Nevertheless, I choose to let go of my normal life during Lent with the hope that I might be transformed for the sake of the common good--and transformation will not necessarily be my choice, my doing, my accomplishment. During this Lent, my penance will involve giving up three things: 1) sweets, 2) meat, and 3) my favorite go-to social network, Facebook. (When my darling husband reads this, he won't believe it. He knows me. These are three of my favorite things.) I don't know what I or anyone else will get out of my Lenten penance, but I suspect I will feel a great emptiness almost immediately--and in the difficult-to-me facing of that emptiness over the coming six weeks, my heart may break. If it does, what wisdom then will my heart be finally ready to receive? What good will I be empowered and inspired to do? What injustice will I realize I can no longer overlook, thanks to my recognition of my personal ability to make a tangible difference in reversing that injustice? This Lent, I will seek to empty myself of what is desirable but not important, so there might be enough spaciousness within me to bear something difficult and radically important: Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. -Galatians 6:2
Nine months ago, I gave birth to my second daughter. Nine months before that, I had little idea that I was about to conceive another child. In each of these nine-month periods, my world changed radically. Eighteen months ago, I had one awesome child. Then, nine months ago, there were two. Nine months ago, I had an office job and I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area--my husband and I had no plans in place for anything else. Now I am living a life that, for all my creativity, I couldn't have imagined. I live in the Sonoran desert. I've published my first book. I've become an Episcopalian in the midst of a beautiful Christian community. I have found greater peace than I ever anticipated in my prayer life as a Benedictine Canon novice. This evening I am filled with gratitude and hope for the blessings I experience in each moment. And I wonder, with great hope, what shall be brought to birth in my life next.
This is my last day as a Roman Catholic. Tomorrow I will be received into the Episcopal Church by Bishop Kirk Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, thus continuing my baptismal journey, continuing my journey as a novice of the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation Benedictine Canons, and beginning my journey in a new-to-me Christian tradition. I am continually surprised at the deep connections I find between my adult faith and the faith of my childhood. I am about to enter the Episcopal Church, a church that liturgically isn't very different from the Roman Catholic tradition. My devotion to a relational, triune God was established before I knew it on Trinity Sunday, the day of my baptism. And my formation in the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation Benedictine Canons, whose devotion is to God's preeminent open-hearted listener, the Theotokos, began not during my years of graduate study at St. John's School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, but at my baptismal church, St. Mary of the Annunciation Church in Greenville, Ohio. My Prior suggests that synchronicities such as these are worth attending to. I have always been a fan of synchronicity--I have just never experienced so much of it in one place as I have in the Sonoran Desert these last five months. All the threads of my life of faith--the threads of liturgical practice, structured prayer, understanding of God as relational/transcendent/imminent, singing, feminism, openness, commitment to the seeking of truth in all places and people, and humility in the presence of God's wondrous deeds--all of these and more are woven into the pattern of my faith life at St. Augustine's and as a Benedictine Canon Novice of St. Mary of the Annunciation. And the pattern they weave takes my breath away. I say farewell to the Roman Catholic Church in kindness and love, and I greet the Episcopal Church with fondness and hope. I trust that my almost thirty-two years as a Roman Catholic Christian have not been in vain, but instead have created a strong foundation on which I can build a stronger faith.
My dreams this week concern me. I've dreamed about killing someone I didn't know; I wasn't convicted in court for lack of evidence, even though I knew I was at fault. I've dreamed about others I did know dying of natural causes, leaving me to pick up the pieces. Last night I dreamed about an elderly friend of mine asking me to help pack up two houses: the one in which he used to live and the one in which he currently lived. He was preparing to move elsewhere, though I didn't know where. Everything I touched in his current house was laden with memory, whereas everything in the other house was strange, rich, and unlike him as far as I knew him. I'm no expert on Jung or Freud, but I do know that dreams can point dreamers to insights about themselves and their lives. What is with all the death, hiding, and transition? I woke in the middle of the night last night to get my baby daughter a bottle. When I returned, I flashed back to a conversation from my last Benedictine Canon chapter meeting. Br. Philip talked about preparing for his final profession as a Canon next month, in particular about the placing of the pall over his prostrated body. Like Br. Chad and Br. Rawleigh, Br. Philip will lay down his body at the service of God, the community, and the world. He'll be covered with a pall, the pale garment of baptism and death. I realized in the chill of the night that if I make my full profession as a Benedictine Canon, I will be committing myself to die. I crawled back into bed and closed my eyes, but words rose up, and I ended up texting myself with the words of a haiku so they wouldn't be swallowed by sleep. A funeral pall veils the diff'rence between old and new. Ego die. My dreams point me to an unexpected revelation: my old self is dying. I am being put to the test. My identity as a religious person has long been plagued with fear, self-absorption, doubt, and horded treasures, all carefully saved so I would have something to cling to in case God ever failed me. Now, step by step, I am moving forward into the intensely uncomfortable unknown: a place of overflowing trust. Father, I put my life in your hands. I'm dying--and it's okay. I'm letting the precious treasure of my life go. And what a relief. Mother, I put my life in your hands. My life will be whatever it is meant to be. The particular outcome of my life is no longer my concern. Living from moment to moment at the service of God and God's magnificent, multi-faceted creation is enough. Being able to turn again and again from my selfish fears toward God, the holy Fire who burns within me, is enough.
Yesterday, during the Candlemas liturgy at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Tempe, Arizona, I made simple vows to become a Benedictine Canon Novice. This is what I promised: To dedicate my life to Holy Godthrough the vows (Because vows imply radical commitment, and to become a member of a religious community is akin to entering a marriage--dissimilar in the way one relates to other members of the community, but similar in one's level of commitment to those members.) of Stability in this community of canons, (A vow to stick with this novitiate in this community, no matter what. I will not blithely abandon this community. These vows are to last at least twelve months, and I will see them through, no matter what insights or doubts or failures may come.) Conversion through the monastic way of life, (A vow to allow my life as a Christian to be formed by the wisdom and requirements of this Benedictine community's life.) and Obedience according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict. (A vow I have long dreaded, ever since I began to take seriously the possibility of religious life. Obedience could always mean that I would not be taken seriously, that my voice would ultimately be ignored, that I would be bullied by my superiors. To obey, however, is to listen--ob audire--and I was able to make this vow because the capacity to listen in a self-emptying way is so clearly manifested in the superior of this community.) By taking simple vows, I have been given the title of Sister. I am choosing to embrace that title in a broad way, and I invite anyone who encounters me to address me as Sister (abbreviated "Sr.") Kate if they feel comfortable doing so. I used to joke with my Roman Catholic friends that they'd be calling me Sister Kate someday. I spent many years investigating seriously the possibility that I might be called to a religious vocation as a sister in the Roman Catholic Church. I assumed when I got engaged that that door would be closed to me forever. But lo! in the Episcopal Church, I have found that not to be true. One can be called "Sister" or "Brother" as a Benedictine Canon and be married with children as well--or not married, not a parent! I find that embracing the title of "Sister" is a way of making a statement about my role as wife and mother as much as it is about being part of this Benedictine Canon community. Claiming this title is the same as saying that my roles of spouse and parent are indeed deeply holy, just as the role of the celibate religious person is. It isn't celibacy that forms the foundation of our holiness, according to this manner of Benedictine life. That is true of Episcopal clergy as well, of course--one can be single or in a committed relationship or married, and none of those things determines whether you are considered called to ordained ministry. I asked the Prior of the community if I could make my simple vows on Candlemas because dates matter to me, and Candlemas in particular stands out as a date of significance. In 2006 (or perhaps it was 2007?) I participated in a Candlemas procession coordinated by my classmate, Cody Unterseher (of blessed memory). Cody had been Roman Catholic growing up, and he became an Episcopalian later on, partly (or perhaps mainly) because of his identity as a gay man. He found in the Episcopal Church a place to call a very dear and hospitable home, which I didn't relate much to at the time. I remember all the candles being carried by many warm hands down the long hallway into the chapel, where they were placed together around the Paschal Candle and blessed with water and holy words. I considered how much light the candles would give over the coming year as they burned down, down, down, the same way the baptized bear light in the world as they move toward the final extinguishing of their baptismal wick. I remember the smell wafting from the swinging thuribles of incense. I remember listening to the profound stories of Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and of a small child born to be light. I remember wondering why I had never celebrated Candlemas before. That procession was with me yesterday. In this place, where fresh air flows freely, my baptismal flame burns brighter than ever. I find open doors and fresh air where I used to find locked doors carefully guarding musty, airless rooms. I get it now. I get why Cody felt at home. Because now I, like he, am able to be wholly who I am called to be--no hiding or sneaking or wondering if I'll get caught for saying things too radical to people with power to diminish my light. I get it because I am now a religious novice in addition to being a wife and parent. I am invited to speak with my expertise and to utilize my gifts where before I was looked on with suspicion and, sometimes, pity. I am no longer being asked to choose one part of my call at the expense of another. I am a novice of the Benedictine Canons, vowed to live out the Rule of Benedict in a way that honors my whole calling--as a woman, as a parent, and as a member of the baptized. I welcome this time of testing. I no longer fear that vow of obedience because I trust that I will never be asked to deny the many facets of my God-given vocation. I trust that I will be asked to chip away at the crust of my superficialities so that who I am called by God to be may glow brightly for all to see.
A dozen or more holy bodies gather in an oval, looking at and past the sacred, central flame to behold the divine spark in one another. Thursday night invites something a little different at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church. The community that gathers then has many names. St. Brigid's. ECMASU. Young People and Families. The Thursday Night Community. There are nearly as many children as adults in the community. The adults are powerful, each in their own way: well-educated, thoughtful, driven, accomplished. They are students, parents, doctors, teachers, professors, and even brain guys. For countless reasons, these people come together to share words, silence, and nourishment with one another. It may be those three things--words, silence, and nourishment--that best characterize this community's fellowship. ~~~ I was asked by the pastor--without advance warning--to be a minister of the holy bread during the eucharist last Thursday. Surprising things like that happen. A moment of need arrives, and suddenly someone finds herself being called on to serve. Not because she's uniquely qualified to do so, but because she has offered her presence in that community, and her presence is enough. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. The Thursday Night Community is a gathering of folks who, more importantly than anything else, choose to show up. If they're called, and if they're willing, they serve. Their presence is Christ's presence. Their willingness is Christ's willingness. Their service is Christ's service. The Thursday night gathering is a rehearsal of the reign of God. ~~~ Time slowed when I stood up to serve the community last Thursday. I strained my ears to hear the words that I would speak to the others: Body of Christ, Bread of Heaven. As I moved around the oval, I looked at each person's face, and a few raised their eyes to meet mine. What a shock of communion it is to meet eyes and hold another's gaze from mere inches away, while offering a precious morsel of food! It is as intimate as dancing. (My best friend, Betsy, would get that.) I don't know what it all meant to me, or what it may have meant to the others there, but I can say confidently that last Thursday was game-changing. Perhaps it was initiation--a sort of baptism by fire. I just know I won't ever be the same.
In my almost thirty-two years as a Roman Catholic, I have never been prouder of any pope. Granted, I've only encountered three in my lifetime, but I am also a student of Christian history. You stand out among your predecessors.
You have rocked the entire world with your embodied proclamations of the good news. You kiss the wounds of the sick. You share tables with those who have neither tables of their own nor food to put on them. You warn your clergy again and again against the glamour of clericalism. Your love is abundant, like Christ's was and is, and I have seen it have a multiplying effect, even (perhaps especially) among non-Roman Catholics.
I am tremendously grateful to God for your faithful, living witness to the teachings of Jesus. Your heart is wide open, and I feel quite certain that if I happened to walk into your midst, you would smile and greet me with the warmth of an old friend, and I would greet you likewise.
I need to confess something to you. On February 16, 2014, God willing, I will leave my cloak of Roman Catholic identity behind in order to be received as a member of the Episcopal Church.
Despite having spent my entire life as a devoted (albeit flawed) Roman Catholic, I cannot remain Roman Catholic any longer. Because despite the gospel of Jesus you now proclaim miraculously through your very body, and despite the many ways in which I encounter Christ's presence through your holy example, I'm afraid there is at least one way in which you, like most if not all of your predecessors, have failed to hear the voice of God and heed it: in the calling of thousands upon thousands of women around the world to ordained ministry.
I was able to name my own God-given call to ordained ministry thirteen years ago. I was still a teenager then. I am close with several Roman Catholic women who share the same call. Yet you, like your papal predecessors, have dismissed even the possibility that women might be called to ordained ministry.
I don't understand this hardness of heart. Not from you.
What I do understand is how hard it can be to hear God's earnest whispers when so much of one's culture screams against it. My favorite psalm is Psalm 51, because it is a perpetual invitation to be changed, transformed, turned around:
Create in me a clean heart, o God. ... Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
I suspect this psalm is as dear to you as it is to me. Please, then, let God's whispers reach your ear through my meager words: God calls some women to serve as ordained ministers. That the Roman Catholic hierarchy refuses to acknowledge this (or even to discuss it) is gravely sinful. It is presumptuous to deny God's calling to those whom God has chosen.
Please, for God's sake, don't allow whatever is lacking in me cause you to be deaf to what God is speaking to you through me in this moment. If anyone with the authority to effect gospel change in the Roman Catholic Church can hear this prophetic word, I believe you can.
Please, open your heart and listen for the sake of my daughters, who will grow up in the midst of your legacy even if they never set foot in a Roman Catholic church.
Please, listen. Listen because you know better than almost anyone that God speaks prophetically through those who are marginalized, women included.
Please, I beg you from the bottom of my heart, listen--allow yourself to be importuned by me, just like the judge was importuned by the widow, or like Jesus was importuned by the woman begging for scraps. You and I both know what happened in those latter two instances. If Jesus' mind could be changed, surely yours can.
I believe that the world-wide turning of hearts to God, if you listened in this one way and acted accordingly, would be a miracle of biblical proportion.
With blessings and love in the One who creates, redeems, and sanctifies all the world,
M. Kate Allen
This letter originally appeared at parentwin.com, where I am a regular contributor on topics of religion. The letter went viral among my Facebook friends and received more discussion and shares there than anything else I've every written, anywhere. A friend of mine encouraged me to mail it to Pope Francis. I did. If he responds, I will share his response here. (Unless he asks me not to.)
I met with my new spiritual director for the first time about a week ago, and now I feel like my new spiritual dwelling has all. It's one thing to journey forth in a community; it's another to have a holy listener dedicated to hearing your story and helping you recognize divine whispers in it. Choosing a spiritual director who's a good fit isn't a simple endeavor--not all spiritual directors are good for all people. Part of discerning who might be a good fit is figuring out whether the spiritual director you meet with is the sort of person you can imagine yourself either wanting to be or called to be in some respect. My spiritual director is a female Episcopal deacon, and I have long felt called to ordained life as a female, even though my own female identity has prevented me from pursuing ordained life for my entire life as a Roman Catholic. Meeting with someone who shares (or who can adapt to) your communication style helps as well. If you're forthright and want to hash things out in an objective way while your spiritual director is highly sentimental, you may feel as though you're talking past your director. Compatible communication styles help bring forth the substance of the conversation rather than serving as a barrier to it. That being said, meeting with someone who isn't exactly like you can sometimes be the most helpful thing of all--someone who is older (or younger), someone who's from a different faith or spiritual tradition, or someone who has had major life experiences that differ from your own may be able to lend a fresh perspective to your context. For me, the most important aspect of a spiritual director is always my gut feeling about that person: Is this someone I trust? Faith and trust are of the same root, and one can hardly develop one's faith with another if one doesn't deeply trust that other from the very beginning.
My spiritual director shared a poem with me that I had never heard before as we began our first conversation together, and it seems to me to be a perfect encapsulation of what one experiences when one is ready for a spiritual director.
In out of the way places of the heart Where your thoughts never think to wander This beginning has been quietly forming Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire Feeling the emptiness grow inside you Noticing how you willed yourself on Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety And the grey promises that sameness whispered Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled, And out you stepped onto new ground, Your eyes young again with energy and dream A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear You can trust the promise of this opening; Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk Soon you will be home in a new rhythm For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
-John O'Donohue, "For a New Beginning"
A spiritual director, or spiritual companion, is someone who bears witness to what is stretching and unfolding in the midst of your life and heart. A spiritual director is someone who walks with you, not to guide you, but to help you name how God/dess is guiding you.
While sipping a hot cup of Ten Ren King's tea and chatting with a dear friend from the San Francisco Bay Area on Facebook, my friend wrote this to me: "kate, I am so happy for you - it seems your life is developing in amazing ways" (NB: The editor in me would like to capitalize and punctuate that sentence, but the friend in me knows better.) My friend is right, you know. I'm struck by how very much my life has changed in a very, very short period of time. I started this blog/site two years ago today. I wrote this:
Hurrah! Thanks to the inspiration of a dear friend of mine, Noach, I have planted the seed of this blog (and broader website). I hope it will yield many vibrant, lush, delicious fruits, and perhaps yield some long-lasting connections in the process.
Is it any surprise that the same friend who helped me plant this seed of a website and blog is now bursting with joy for me at what has risen up from the dark, fertile soil of my dreams and yearning? I look back at the woman I was in 2012--a first time mom; an office manager at a small synagogue; a frustrated, well-educated, sad, and increasingly jaded Roman Catholic--and I see someone who knew that 2012 was a beginning rather than an end. I had no real idea of where the road would lead, but I knew I would be creating the road for myself as I went along, and that I would visit some unusual and unfamiliar places along the way. My mantra lately, when folks ask me how I like Arizona, is, "I never thought I'd like living in the desert." But I do. My family is happy here. My husband has a job in which he thrives. I'm able to be at home with my girls for now, do fun-to-me gigs, and write to my heart's content. And finally, at long last, I get to be a both-feet-all-the-way-in member of a religious community in which I am valued, period--no strings attached, no hidden agendas, no glass ceiling. I love this community so much that my heart aches, as if it might burst. It's like being home again, but it's more than that. I'm not just part of the beauty that is my new community; I'm becoming a leader in bringing forth that beauty. Me. A woman. A thirty-something from Ohio who very early on learned to shut up and take it when something or someone wasn't good enough, even when what was good enough was within my reach, and even when what wasn't good enough was sanctioned by my religious leaders. Two years later, in 2014, I find myself in the midst of imperfect, beautiful people, and just by being my own imperfect self, I am amazing. I am vibrant. I am what I was searching for two years ago. It just took being planted in a fertile garden, free of choking weeds, for me to see myself stretched up tall and completely radiant for the first time.
When my friend Noach was helping bring this site into being, he asked me about folks he could contact to recommend me to others. One of the three who responded was my classmate from St. John's School of Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota), Rev. Cody Unterseher. When I wrote my post about leadership yesterday, I had forgotten about the recommendations tucked away on this site. I found the following from a person who was even more dedicated to the study of liturgy than I was, and who even knew about my church in Cleveland as soon as I mentioned it to him while at table in the St. John's refectory in August 2005. Cody and I were both laypeople when we were at St. John's, and somehow we ended up in a stance of wary opposition to one another for most of those two years. Although I sang at his ordination to the diaconate in late March of 2007, we didn't really become friends until we had each been accepted into (separate) doctoral programs in liturgical studies. He was an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church by then, and his focus in all things was reconciliation in Christ. He wrote this about me when solicited for the testimonials on this site: I had the privilege of working side-by-side with Kate during our overlapping years at Saint John's School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota (2005-2007). During that time, each of us served a one-year tenure as Chair of the School's Student Liturgy Committee. In her time as Chair, Kate showed herself to be a competent, confident and collegial leader. Her ability to coordinate the Committee's efforts were exceeded only by her gift for enabling and equipping others to do the work with which they were engaged, in a non-anxious, non-domineering and non-threatened way. Everything needful was well done, without haste, without micromanagement, in a respectful atmosphere of mutual listening and creative consensus-building. The ability to lead in such a way is a real gift as well as a skill, and Kate has cultivated it as a faithful steward. In terms of practical ability, Michelle Kate is a most competent liturgist. She combines a commanding knowledge of liturgical history and liturgical theology, together with a refined sense of liturgical law and its application, and brings these to bear on her work in preparing for liturgical celebration. At the same time, and more importantly, Michelle Kate has a refined pastoral sense. She is able to listen to a community, supporting its members as they give voice to their vision and aspirations, and helping them to identify and prioritize needs and goals for practical achievement. In preparing for liturgical celebration, Kate has a strong sense of liturgical gestalt, and is able to harmonize musical selection, crafted and received texts, and worship space environment in a way that is at once humble and elegant.
As I said, it was a privilege to work with Kate; I would not hesitate to work with her again in the future, nor to recommend her wholeheartedly to others. His kindness in remembering our two years together overwhelmed me. That was late in 2011. When he died suddenly from complications related to a brain aneurysm in April 2012, my world collapsed around me. I wept for months. I still weep for him. I'm not into guardian angels, but I often have Cody (whom I fondly refer to as Codex) close to heart when I consider my future as a the( )logian and minister. In fact, I just found out that he was ordained to the priesthood on the Feast of the Archangels (also known as the Feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas). He is indeed my own Holy Messenger (άγγελος), accompanying me from his place at the Holy Banquet. He and I were more alike than I ever imagined when we were in school together. That fact alone leads me to believe that I could indeed become a remarkable servant leader--just like the one he became.
My baby crawled for the first time today. Her dad and sister and I cheered her on wildly as if she had just hit a grand slam. (The first object she went for was a crinkly package of baby wipes; the second was a major league baseball. Yes, a little music and a little baseball confirm that she is our child.) I feel like her--inching forward, reaching for that which I behold, struggling little by little with every bit of my strength to get where I'm going. With her, it's a down-on-the-ground, whole-bodied struggle. With me, it's a battle raging within me over a single, burning question: whether or not I qualify as a leader. (Weird inner battles, I'm good at them.) I'm not an alpha female. I know women--amazing women--who are alpha types. I admire them, but I'm not one of them, nor do I have any desire to be one. This obviously precludes me from assuming any role of religious (ordained) leadership. I still hear this call to leadership, though, which makes my eyes cross. Come on, Goddess. Non-alpha types don't make leaders. The whole notion is absurd. How can I be a leader when I'm the one who's always been in the background, observing more often than herding? When I've been told to my face that I'm not a leader? Leadership roles in my case seem (as my medically trained hubby would say) contraindicated. Conveniently, I've never had to grapple with this before, because I've always belonged to a tradition in which I would never have to take seriously (or be taken seriously regarding) my call to religious (i.e. ordained) leadership. Now I'm about to be received in a tradition that does, and I'm flailing like my infant daughter. How am I supposed to get where I'm going if I don't have the juice to do it? For fun, I decided to humor my Lady Goddess and google "characteristics of a leader." I found this list.
Proactive vs. Reactive The exceptional leader is always thinking three steps ahead. Working to master his/her own environment with the goal of avoiding problems before they arise.
Flexible/Adaptable How do you handle yourself in unexpected or uncomfortable situations? An effective leader will adapt to new surroundings and situations, doing his/her best to adjust.
A Good Communicator As a leader, one must listen...a lot! You must be willing to work to understand the needs and desires of others. A good leader asks many questions, considers all options, and leads in the right direction.
Respectful Treating others with respect will ultimately earn respect.
Quiet Confidence Be sure of yourself with humble intentions.
Enthusiastic Excitement is contagious. When a leader is motivated and excited about the cause people will be more inclined to follow.
Open-Minded Work to consider all options when making decisions. A strong leader will evaluate the input from all interested parties and work for the betterment of the whole. Resourceful Utilize the resources available to you. If you don't know the answer to something find out by asking questions. A leader must create access to information. Rewarding An exceptional leader will recognize the efforts of others and reinforce those actions. We all enjoy being recognized for our actions! Well Educated Knowledge is power. Work to be well educated on community policies, procedures, organizational norms, etc. Further, your knowledge of issues and information will only increase your success in leading others.
Open to Change A leader will take into account all points of view and will be willing to change a policy, program, cultural tradition that is out-dated, or no longer beneficial to the group as a whole.
Interested in Feedback How do people feel about your leadership skill set? How can you improve? These are important questions that a leader needs to constantly ask the chapter. View feedback as a gift to improve.
Evaluative Evaluation of events and programs is essential for an organization/group to improve and progress. An exceptional leader will constantly evaluate and change programs and policies that are not working.
Organized Are you prepared for meetings, presentations, events and confident that people around you are prepared and organized as well?
Consistent Confidence and respect cannot be attained without your leadership being consistent. People must have confidence that their opinions and thoughts will be heard and taken into consideration. Delegator An exceptional leader realizes that he/she cannot accomplish everything on his own. A leader will know the talents and interests of people around him/her, thus delegating tasks accordingly.
Initiative A leader should work to be the motivator, an initiator. He/she must be a key element in the planning and implementing of new ideas, programs, policies, events, etc.
But... I am/do all of those things when it comes to something I care about and am deeply invested in. So... Moi? Leader? I'm not an alpha leader. I'm a servant leader. I lead by example. I'm dazzling and inspiring in a different way. Folks don't generally want to be me--they want to be around me. When I live out my (rather awesome) ideals, I am at the service of others, rather than in charge of them. That's how my leadership manifests. I've just never formally thought of leadership, especially religious leadership, like that. Now that I see it at work at St. Augustine's, however--a context which has become my context, rather than remaining someone else's--it makes a surprising amount of sense. Tune in again soon for more from the M. Kate Meets Her Vocation show!