Reading the St. Louis Edicts

Michael Foley Photography via flickr

Most of what I learned about God as a child came as a gift from my godmother, Veronica. Her lessons on faith were woven easily into our camping expeditions; her favorite activity was venturing into what she called “the cathedral of the universe.” As we navigated north country logging roads, beyond civilization, she’d laugh and announce that we’d be having our religious service at sunrise the next morning; her cathedral’s floor was flat outcroppings of rock smoothed by river, or invisible grains of sand packed together at low tide, or a mossy surface drizzled in pine needles. It was open-air; it seated as many worshipers as there are humans.

There were no booklets instructing non-Catholics on what parts of the worship they could and could not partake in; there was no elevated altar or podium from which a priest told us a joke, or a story, before mentioning the day’s Gospel reading. What we did read were the texts of the landscape, for their evidence of our creator’s boundless creativity and beauty. We analyzed our life as literary form, nestled around a camp fire, discussing the merits of one decision or another, its consequences on ourselves, our families, even strangers. We did not wait for a person to consecrate a wafer and then imbibe it as the body of Christ; I imagined the wilderness was consecrated directly by God and that my body, sweating up a hiking trail or at rest in my sleeping bag, was one tiny part of God’s.

Growing up, Veronica liked to tell me that the holiest thing I could do was to become all that God imagined when she created me. These words would come out of her mouth in a matter-of-fact tone, until the pronoun ‘she,’ given an emphasis and exuberance that imbued it with a delicious sound of danger or daring. Her eyebrows would raise and she would, without needing to, defend this statement by reminding me that God was neither male nor female, so that she was just as accurate a term as he. I spent many hours pondering what God could have imagined me to be.

When people meet Veronica, they are often surprised to learn of her previous life as a Catholic nun. The independent, outgoing, joyously loud adventurer does not fit the stereotypes of nuns given to us by pop culture: the repressed teacher who freely slaps students’ wrists, or the gentle, silent introvert. I have never seen my godmother pray, and she is known not to set foot in a church unless for a wedding or a funeral.

But when she became a sister at age eighteen, things were very different. “I graduated from high school in 1959, and even though that seems like a million years ago, it wasn’t. The choices for women were very few. You became a teacher or a nurse. A lot of people got married young. I wanted to do things; I had a sense of dedication, and to help people.” By the time she made the decision to leave the convent, my godmother had spent more of her life as a religious than as a lay person. She had founded a consulting business with sisters and organized popular training sessions. She worked in the chancery, the name of a diocese’s highest office, the seat of the bishop.

According to one source, only about 2% of women leave the religious life. What led my godmother to make this momentous decision? Part of the answer lies in a story. “The great big Motherhouse dome needed to be fixed. I went home one day and they had repaired it with copper, but they were putting gold leaf on it. It was shocking to me that they would put gold leaf on the dome, when the dome looked down on the high school where the teachers didn’t have a pension plan or salaries.

“I was up in the cathedral yard and there were two homeless men in the yard and one said, ‘What’s that shining over there?’ Then one said, ‘That’s the house the nuns live in.’ And he said, ‘Well, fuck them.’ ”

In a way, despite her deep respect for the order’s work, my godmother shared this feeling about the opulent renovation of the Motherhouse. And she expressed it to a superior, in a far more nuanced way. Her superiors, as Veronica describes it, were shocked. “We don’t need you to pollute our environment. If you’re not going to go along with things, then we don’t need you.” Eventually, she was offered a transfer to another city. “What [my superior] was saying was, ‘your world is bigger than the world we have known.’ But I can’t belong where I live and I won’t belong where I don’t live. I just said, No. At that same time, the Berlin wall had come down; I could just imagine women stirring the porridge on the stove, hearing that the wall had come, and just grabbing their kids or whatever and making a run for freedom; I was forty-nine. To just to go out and figure things out for myself, it was quite a challenging thing.” I am struck by my godmother’s awareness of the global changes in society at the moment of her decision. Convinced that the waves would not reach the religious life, she created her own lifeboat and rowed out after it.

The Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), representative of eighty percent of American nuns, has been formally accused of treason’s equivalent by bishops representing the Vatican. Chief among the mens’ complaints about the ladies? They have not been vocal enough in opposing abortion and birth control; they made the wrong public statement on Obamacare by valuing insurance benefits for more families and children over abortion-funding concerns; they have expressed radical views. Most of all, the men have accused the women of disobedience to doctrine; this is comparable to being accused of disobedience to men, as men have cornered the market on official interpretation of the scriptures for thousands of years.

In her address to her peers at the recent LCWR gathering in St. Louis, the organization’s dynamic president Pat Farrell acknowledged changes within the structure of women’s religious orders, changes which came too late for Veronica: “We have effectively moved from a hierarchically structured lifestyle in our congregations to a more horizontal model. It is quite amazing, considering the rigidity from which we evolved . . . These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world.” She turns the tables on the bishops, coming with an offering, a gesture of good will, rather than an act of hostility.

For many years I did not appreciate the enormity of Veronica’s decision to take off the habit; the change in her attire was all that was visible to me. In her return to the laity, she entered the corporate world, where she again assumed a natural role as a mentor to those she trained; the subject matter changed, but her approach—one of respect, inclusion, love of learning—was the same.

Operating outside of the Church’s official terrain did not change her belief in God; it signaled her intent to worship through her behavior. Her habits would be her prayers. No one in our large family knows the true extent of the emotional support she has offered to relatives and non-relatives alike. Her advice comes from a place like a confessional; one does not have to be indicted as a sinner to receive the wisdom, but what is said between giver and receiver will remain so.

While most would classify me as a ‘lapsed’ Catholic, since I have not attended Mass in more than a year, I do not link the strength or practice of my faith to participation in formal rituals whose parameters have been set by men, most of them elderly, in the Vatican. For the first twenty-odd years of my life, these rituals—preparation for the sacraments, formal confession of my sins and weekly Mass—formed the core of my Catholic identity. Attending Mass was as ordinary as brushing my teeth before bed. Being Catholic was fundamental to how I defined myself; as a writer, I chose spiritual writer Teresa of Avila for my confirmation name. The average teenager does not eagerly volunteer to instruct third-graders in religious education. Yet that is how I spent two of my weekday afternoons as a tenth grader.

But as I grew, something changed as I listened to the priests who would come forth after parishioners, usually women, had read aloud the word of God: I began to grow impatient in the pew. I noticed the difference in tones, viewpoints, word choices and scenes amongst the different Gospels. I waited keenly in anticipation of what insight the man of God, the priest, might give us, the audience, about the text. Afterwards, I would pile into the backseat of the car and begun pummeling the other riders with points in the text left unexamined by the sermon, missed opportunities for reflection. I came to Mass in search of a challenge, and left unsatisfied. Listening to the texts, reciting the prayers, the ritual itself, all were soothing, but the intellectual aspect of my faith stalled.

I thought about the responsibilities of a priest: interpreting the scripture, public speaking, nurturing and forming communities, counseling individuals. My English teacher had advised me to become a literary critic. What better way to fuse my faith and my passion for literature than a preacher’s career? I seemed like an ideal candidate—aside from the fact I wanted to be married, and I lacked male anatomy. So I gave up on the idea of priesthood, knowing that such a dramatic change would not come soon in a regime whose leaders were hand-picked, for their loyal adherence to the directives of an earthly leader, a fellow traveler on a straight road.

I stubbornly stay away from the local parish now, but I still miss the balancing ritual of Mass, the cyclical nature of hearing the stories read aloud. This past Lent, I wanted to prepare for Easter, and I happened upon Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels. Finally, I had found the ‘priestess’ I have longed for—a reader who debates with Jesus, asks questions, savors the inability to answer them, and finds frustration in the complications and confusing implications of all those familiar Gospel stories. Gordon is a driver happy to reach the end of one road, turn around, take it as far as it goes in the opposite direction, and then veer off the pavement completely, into a corn field or grove of trees, as seems fitting. As she explains, we can become numb to the Gospel stories, since we have internalized their plots when we are too young to approach them critically. We forget that Jesus was, she writes, “a storyteller.” Stories are the products of their times and their cultures, and also never complete until a reader interprets them; they also serve a purpose that the reader must discern.

Gordon treats the Gospels with the respect they deserve, as puzzles, as remedies that are also painful. She looks up words in the OED; she is frequently puzzled by Jesus’s invocations and other directives from the apostles; she tries to layer these over contemporary situations from her everyday life and sometimes draws a blank as to how they apply, uncertain if there is only one possible Catholic course of action. What is most satisfying about this book is that her understanding of a text evolves through each chapter, as it would unfold in my imaginary, ideal sermon, keeping me on my toes as I listened for the final revelation.

My religious affiliation survives now in a form of chosen exile, openly dissenting in an organization that, along with being one of the last remaining bastions of institutionalized, codified gender inequality, does not tolerate challenges or questions to its authority. In continuing to identify as a Catholic although I reject many doctrines, I stand at the margins as Veronica does, casting a wide net to think of the marginalized as those disenfranchised by the institution of the Church. Perhaps Farrell would identify us, or is even referring to herself, when she says, “People on the margins who are less able to and less invested in keeping up appearances, often have an uncanny ability to name things as they are. Standing with them can help situate us in the truth and helps keep us honest.”

By declaring an aim to “explain to church leaders” their perspective, the LCWR calls it like it is: we are not recognized leaders of the church, despite our prominent roles in global organizations including the United Nations. Perhaps, the assembly has chosen this moment of attack to launch a counteroffensive: they have an “expectation . . . that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understanding between the church leadership and women religious, but also to creating more possibilities for the laity, and particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.” This is our goal, they say; if this does not happen, it is your failure to be open and honest. We are the agents of democratization of worship; who are you? Take us, they offer, or we’ll leave you.

Catholicism is a country whose citizenship I do not want to renounce, but within whose official territories—the Mass, the sacraments—I hesitate to go. I am in exile from the Church, but not from my faith. Literature and language brought me back to God; I have always preferred to pray in the form of letters to God, crafting my supplications as art, from a place of humility.

When my godmother chose to follow her own understanding of God’s will rather than directions from another human being that contradicted that understanding, her choice was a springboard to another life. Yet her experience caused great pain. I hear sadness when Veronica describes teenage expectations of religious life as a gateway to changing the world. Instead, that life served as a mirror of hierarchies and divisions not reflective of Christ’s unconditional love for all.

In response to the LCWR assembly, Cardinal Raymond Burke asked a question that echoed the dilemma my godmother faced. “How in the world can these consecrated religious who have professed to follow Christ more closely . . . be opposed to what the Vicar of Christ is asking? This is a contradiction,” he said. This question is easily answered by anyone schooled in close reading, and the Cardinal’s failure to differentiate following Christ from obeying what the Vicar of Christ is asking shows a distinct lack of imagination.

Today, one of my godmother’s chief pursuits is photography. She believes that “God is light,” thus, the act of trying to capture people and places is a way of recording the presence of the holy. On early morning photo shoots, we crouch on the side of a country road, our heads tilted awkwardly, wanting to aim our cameras at that bee as it pollinates the flower. We only photograph what grows wildly, on the edges of properties, where we can have access without intruding.

I hope and trust that LCWR will venture beyond where it is invited. Farrell’s sermon—err, speech—instills me with hope for expanding the borders of the American Church, or for an alliance of like-minded individuals to form a breakaway republic, a place to belong until we can come together when our consciousness has evolved such that we all want to strip the gold from our domes and use it to build shelter for the homeless. “Bless them,” they will say, “bless them.”

Biographer of place Cynthia-Marie O'Brien (MFA, Columbia University; BA, Dartmouth College) resides in New York while her mind shuttles between New England, Eastern Europe, and South America. She received a notable citation in Best American Essays 2011. Her writing appears in Bellevue Literary Review, Publishers Weekly, Stonefence Review and Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. She is an assistant director of the Columbia University Writing Center.