After some consideration, I've decided to take a break from blogging for the month of July. I have an important translation project on my plate that unfortunately is not working on itself, and with August and September just around the corner, I need to get moving before a new sweep of responsibilities rolls in. If SCOTUS or anyone else with extraordinary power makes an outlandish decision over the next month, however, I'll drop in to write about it. In the meantime, my readers remain in my prayers. (If you would like to make a special prayer request, I welcome you as always to click on Aurora Chapel and leave your request there.)
Recently I met someone who suffers from extreme nausea. He can't eat. He's afraid he's going to die. He mentioned fear of going to hell because of his past choices. I asked him in a quiet voice, "Do you believe you're going to go to hell?" He paused for a long moment, then answered, "My hesitation tells you a lot, doesn't it?" My heart wanted to burst in that moment. How could I, who have sinned so greatly and hurt so many, offer my hope to him? I wrote down for him the lyrics of a slow, gentle hymn I learned years ago, the words to which were written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Goodness is stronger than evil Love is stronger than hate Light is stronger than darkness Life is stronger than death Victory is ours, victory is ours Through Him who loves us Today I went flipping through the psalms and found one in particular that might have resonated with him.
Psalm 143 Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness; answer me in your righteousness. Do not enter into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.
I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.
Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.
For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble. In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant. As a Benedictine Canon, my daily prayer etches the psalms on my heart. A few of the psalms I remember most easily are those I memorized long ago in song. Psalm 51, Psalm 130, Psalm 63, Psalm 23, and Psalm 91 spring to mind most easily when my heart is heavy. What words do I repeat to myself about God when I am most low? How might I find fresh, life-giving, mercy-imparting words?
Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) voted 5-4 in favor of allowing closely held corporations (i.e. private corporations run by religious families), like Hobby Lobby, the right to choose not to provide insurance coverage to employees for contraception. The conflict, as I see it, is between members of the Religious Right who believe that they should have a say in how their dollars subsidize the medical care of those who may or may not share their beliefs, on one hand, and those people (well, women) who seek affordable (i.e. insured) medical care for their reproductive health. To call this ruling by an all-male majority of the SCOTUS a slide down the slippery slope would understated at best. Who's doing the sliding? SCOTUS men and the rallying Religious Right, shouting about their right to exercise conscientious objections. What slope? The uteruses of women who work for closely held corporations. This ruling sounds like rape to me. In a way, it's unsurprising. Rape culture thrives in the United States, where women who are raped are asked what they were wearing when it happened, rather than rapists being held up to close scrutiny for their total violation of other human beings. If a woman works for a closely held corporation like Hobby Lobby, surely she's asking for the diminishing of her privacy when it comes to her reproductive health. Surely she's asking for her employer to judge what is best for her, and to deny the financial support that makes possible the healthcare her employer deems unacceptable/unethical/unnecessary. Surely someone other than this female employee and her doctor knows best--and if this female employee doesn't agree, she should take herself to some other job, nevermind what it might cost her. As a woman and a parent, the impact of reduced coverage for reproductive health is not lost on me. My husband and I are extraordinarily fertile. Think of the woman like me, with a partner like my husband, who had plans to have an IUD placed in order to avoid getting pregnant again after her recent pregnancy. She, like me, can't imagine having an abortion if she were to get pregnant, and she, like me, can't afford to have another child. But now, as an employee of Hobby Lobby, she can't afford an IUD, either--as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her scathing dissent in this SCOTUS ruling, "It bears note that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers on the minimum wage." So what does the Hobby Lobby female employee do? Stop having sex with her husband? (Because that wouldn't ruin her marriage relationship--not at all.) Hope she doesn't get raped? (Because that wouldn't happen unless she was asking for it! Obviously!) This SCOTUS ruling is obscene and frightening. It all comes back to one question for me: What right does any other person have to take away the rights of another--even a woman? And sadly, it seems to come down to the concept of personhood. This ruling affirms the Religious Right's claim that men, fetuses, and corporations are persons--and women are not. That women aren't persons is the most successful lie of the Western history. The SCOTUS ruling makes it clear that that lie still succeeds in 2014. As a religious person, I am angry, and I'm praying in fury. How long, o Mother God, till justice rolls down like a river? How long, o Father God, till the patriarchal narrative of "father/male/anyone-in-the-world-other-than-a-woman knows best" is separated from the fine wheat that gives life and burned like the chaff that it is? How long?
When Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica, he compares the ministry of himself and his fellow leaders to that of a mother.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. -Thessalonians 2:7b-8
This ministry is one of gentleness, of refreshment, of steady abiding-with that overflows with love. He regards the members of the Thessalonian church as very dear. Belonging now to a church in which the vocations of women to ordained ministry are recognized and fully accepted, I find fresh meaning in this. In this passage, Paul is unafraid of comparing himself and other leaders to devoted women. In recommending himself to the Thessalonian church, he embraces a maternal image. In mothering, goodness may be found. In mothering, loyalty may be found. In mothering, unfettered love may be found. In mothering, all the nourishment a young one needs may be found. To be a gracious, loving, effective, Godly minister, in this passage, is to be a mother. I am grateful to be part of a church that embraces the title of "Mother" for its female priestly ministers. When I consider the call I hear to priestly ministry, considering it in terms of mothering enriches it beyond what any book on priesthood might say. Mothering is something I get. Mothering implies total commitment, total love, and totally deep joy--even in the midst of difficulties and trials. I would give anything for my children, including my life. Isn't this what the high priest, Jesus the Christ, does?
Through my silence practice every morning this week, my life has grown very quiet, and I'm noticing a new tone in my discernment about priestly call. My failings and faults have surfaced with a most poignant sting. I've started questioning the call I'm hearing. I've dared the call I hear to change, to go away. The funny (read: frustrating) part is that even as I've allowed myself to feel anxiety and doubt and worry during these silences, the call I hear hasn't wavered. I hear this call even though I'm not perfect, not the best fit, not the holiest person, not the most balanced person, not the cookie cutter candidate. As I continue to hear this call, I acknowledge that the outcome of all this discernment is irrelevant. My listening--my obedience--is the only thing that matters to the one I call God. Will I continue to offer over my whole heart, no matter what outcome that offering brings forth?
I began a spiritual practice of silence this morning--ten minutes, first thing after getting the baby her morning milk, eyes closed, hands and body open to receive. One thing I received was the final phrase from a Taizé song: "Come and listen to me." I couldn't remember in that moment what song it came from--all I could remember were those words. Without context, the words took new shape. Was God bidding? Was I bidding? Was someone else bidding? I realized that all three were doing the bidding. My heart turned then toward the fruits of the Spirit, and then to spiritual and corporal works of mercy. As my silence ended, I wondered whether there were opportunities available to volunteer in local hospices and prisons--to listen, to be present, to abide in what is difficult and deeply transforming. I found out that there are abundant hospice volunteer opportunities in the Valley of the Sun. I found far less when I was looking for volunteer opportunities for prison ministry, at least from within an Episcopal or interfaith context. I asked for help on Facebook and got information from two of the leaders from my parish, one of whom pointed me to a notice on the Trinity Cathedral website that Bishop Kirk Smith is planning a summit for those involved in or interested in prison ministry within the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. Coincidence? Spirit stirring in open hearts for the common good?
My 3-year old is fond of calling me Sister Kate. She's also fond of running through the line-up of our family names. Just now she said, "Sister Kate, Sister Miriam, Sister Daddy, Sister Mommy!" I think she's onto an insight about what a title like "Sister" can signify, but I'll wait till she's older to ask about it. Do you remember when Sister Act came out in the early 1990's? I loved that movie. It was the movie that made me love Whoopi Goldberg. It was amazing to see a film about "my people" told from the perspective of such a quirky religious outsider. In what ways does donning a religious habit, living the religious life, and taking the title of "Sister" change me? In what ways does my wearing of the habit, living of the life, and using the title of "Sister" change what others think of religious life?
Sister Thea Bowman was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, and she changed the face of the African-American Roman Catholic Church. Sister Thea was a woman who led with joy, story, music, and a sharp intellect. She was a woman who had the power to speak prophetically against injustice in ways that would soften the hearts of even old white bishops--again and again. Her power was the power to tell a story, to preach without a fourth wall, to engage others at the level of senses and emotion and experience. She died from cancer a couple of weeks before I turned eight years old. It was another twenty years before I knew who she was. When I make my solemn profession as a Benedictine Canon next spring, I plan to take Sister Thea's name as my religious name. I see in Sister Thea a bright, strong, gentle, humble, magnetic leader who could tear down any Jericho walls with the dulcimer sounds of her story-telling-and-transforming voice. Do I have the courage to be more than I am? Do I have the humility to let go of my own weighty importance so I can fly with the wild, light Spirit in whom I put my trust and hopes?
How does one listen anyway? Take a deep breath. Let silence envelop your entire awareness. Be still. How long is it before your thoughts quiet? How long is it before you stop tracking how long it's been? What is it like to sit, to wait, to let God play midwife to your pregnant silence? How does this midwife move around you? Does she move at all? Does she clasp your hand? Does she sit back in a seat next to you and murmur words of encouragement? Does she simply wait with you, occasionally placing a hand on your swollen belly for signs of what is to come? What needs to be tended at this moment? What needs to be waited on? What needs the midwife's gentle, firm, skillful assurance? What will you bear forth from your listening?
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?
Nevermind the missing apostrophe and the muddled graphic, if you can. I've been pondering the role my ego has to play in keeping me from fulfilling my call, and I've realized over the last week that it could make or break it. Christian vocation is paradoxical. Without releasing my attachment to the desire to succeed, I won't succeed. Without releasing my attachment to being an outstanding Christian role model, I won't be one. Without releasing my attachment to having things go the way I think God's planning them, I may interfere with God's plans. Christian vocation requires a release of ego and all its attachments and wants. Christian vocation requires nothing more or less than for me to become an open, ready vessel of extraordinary capability, so God can work God's wonders through me.
As I read Nicola Griffith's Hild, among several other books that I'm reading concurrently, I wonder how many other worlds have been waiting for me to inhabit them with my imagination. I invite you to share in a comment below the one book (complete with author's name and any other information you'd like to share) that has most transformed you/your worldview. I'll start the list with a comment of my own.
This morning I took one of those silly little online quizzes that a friend of mine posted on Facebook. This one was called, "What Emotion Are You Guided By?"I knew it would only be ten or twelve questions, and I knew that it would either tell me what I wanted to hear or be way off (and either outcome was equally likely), but I have discovered that asking a question--even in an online quiz--can only yield more to think about. So I took the quiz. Its answer? Vulnerability.
You are a very emotional, sensitive person. You act upon your feelings, even if it's hurting you, and your strong and vivid emotions tend to get the best of you. Being vulnerable is not a negative thing - it makes you more aware of other people's emotions and when they might be hurt. Trying to grow a thicker skin might be a good idea, but don't hurry. Keep your tender soul alive for as long as you can, it's precious.
Two things strike me: 1) Vulnerability isn't precisely an emotion, so I wasn't expecting that as a possible answer; and 2) now that I think about it, a number of people who have journeyed with me in recent months have pointed to my increasing vulnerability and what a vital part of me that is. Don't hurry, it says. Keep your tender soul alive for as long as possible, it says. Being vulnerable is not a negative thing. The trouble with vulnerability is that a vulnerable person is always in a position to be hurt--this truth comes to me from too much experience. Nevertheless, throughout the last seven or so months, I have aimed to become as vulnerable as I have ever been. Vulnerability doesn't just make it possible to be hurt; vulnerability makes it possible to heal. Vulnerability makes it possible to be honest. Vulnerability makes it possible to let one's ego go. Vulnerability makes it possible for Spirit to make a rich dwelling for herself in one's midst. As a person of faith, and particularly as a Benedictine Canon, I find that many of my former desires have fallen away to make room for this one great desire: to love and serve God and my neighbor (as Jesus did, and as Spirit inspires me to do). I can't predict the future. I don't know exactly what that love and service will look like in advance. I can't control any of it. I can only listen with the ear of my heart and respond. Vulnerability keeps my own voice from overtaking God's. Vulnerability makes the impossible possible. Total vulnerability means that, no matter how my ego may feel about it, my whole heart is in God's hands, for better or worse. Will I keep faith when I am thrown into the pit and later sold into slavery like Joseph? Will I keep faith when my family and my life are destroyed like Job's? Will I keep faith when I'm asked to stand up to Pharaoh like Moses? Will I keep faith when I meet my dead Lord in the garden like Mary? Will I keep faith when I realize that my role is to decrease like John? In what difficult and extraordinary situations will I find myself saying to God, "Here I am, I have come to do your will"? And when I find myself as Pharaoh's most trusted advisor like Joseph, and when I find myself radically trusting God despite all my loss like Job, and when I perform unforeseen wonders through God's power like Moses, and when I run off to proclaim that God lives like Mary, and when I proclaim the one I love to be greater than I am like John, will my life's purpose find its completion and unbridled joy in God saying to me, "Well done, good and faithful servant"?
My fourth priestly discernment meeting, which happened yesterday morning in between Pentecost liturgies, gives me goosebumps as I reflect on it. I realize that the questions I received were the questions of Spirit herself, that God was speaking through the voices of my five committee members (right there in Heidi Chapel) and I was being beckoned to answer God's questions from the depths of my vulnerable heart. The whole of the Pentecost season (which, thanks to the influence of Latin in the Roman Church, we call "Ordinary Time") is a time of just this kind of discernment, of radical listening. My Pentecost theme for Thealogical Lady will be "Spirit Whispers," and here I will invite myself and my readers to cultivate the ability to hear what Spirit says. To listen, ob audire, is to be obedient. Obedience is one of the vows that I have made as a Benedictine Canon, and obedience--radical listening--is something to which all Christians are called by baptism. Listening is a path of wisdom for any mindful person, that she might hear something greater and wiser than her own solitary voice. In reflecting on the Spirit-ed questions that emerged during my discernment meeting yesterday, clarity about my identity rose up. I am not merely Kate, responding to a diocesan priestly call; I am Sr. Kate, a vowed member of the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation, responding to a religious priestly call. I wonder what further clarity will emerge from my next discernment meeting. In what ways will Spirit speak through the curiosity and concerns of my committee members? What will I hear, if I have ears to listen?