At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke of “women impregnated by the Spirit of the Gospel,” and more recently Pope Francis has called for a “new theology of women.” There are thousands of Catholic lay women discerning how to share their gifts and responding to ministerial calls. In many cases, these women are well-trained and highly educated professionals who bring a wealth of life experience to their work in parishes, diocesan offices, and faith-based non-profit organizations. With this profile of Kate Burke and her ministry, I am launching a series of blog posts which celebrate Catholic lay women’s vocations and profile some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.
– Rhonda Miska
It was a cool, rainy spring evening when I gathered with six other women for a ninety minute session of New Lectio Divina. As we trickled into the church shaking off our umbrellas, Kate Burke, our facilitator, invited us to sit in a circle of folding chairs in a corner of the church sanctuary. She informed us that half the proceeds of her ministry go to a parish in central Haiti, and then invited a few moments of silent prayer to open. Next, she passed around copies of two psalms. Psalm 130 – a psalm of penitence – which begins “out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” And psalm 150 – a psalm of praise – with the refrain “praise the Lord!”
Well-conditioned from my scripture courses at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I had a knee-jerk reaction to begin exegesis on the texts. What was the original Hebrew of some of the key words in each psalm? When were they written, and what do scholars speculate about the author’s intent? What would various commentaries have to say? I felt a twinge of anxiety. How could we spend ninety minutes of fourteen verses of scripture with nothing more than the words on the page?
However, Burke promised the two-dimensional words on the page would be transformed into a topography with mountains and valleys – no commentaries or dictionaries needed. She invited us into a “text-based dialogue” and told us we would take a “vocal and physical journey” with the psalms. Rather than scripture study, we would engage in scripture immersion.
From an early age, Burke loved language and the spoken word. As a child, she played with language, accents, music, and the range of capacities of the human voice. “Language is alive and moving, never frozen and always changing,” Burke explained. She followed this passion for language by double majoring in French and drama as an undergraduate, and then pursued a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting.
Burke’s career in theatre grew: she continued to act and taught at several universities. However, she harbored a secret fear of Shakespeare’s works. Ironically, she was at the Old Globe Theatre MFA Acting Program at the University of San Diego when she experienced what she refers to as her “Shakespeare crisis.”
“Shakespeare’s writing has such unusual syntax. I didn’t trust myself with it,” Burke admits. She faced this fear in 1993 in workshop with Andrew Wade and was learned the system the Royal Shakespeare Theatre had developed for training actors. “It’s playful, it’s exploratory, it’s fun… it’s about full, energized speaking of language,” she explained. “This text-based approach flies in the face of Method acting – which is internal and self-absorbed.”
Burke became a Shakespeare specialist and developed a passion for this approach, which is based on meaningful repetition of the text. In the same way that children can watch the same Disney movie dozens of times and always find something new, Burke argues that voicing the same text over and over deepens our engagement with it. Voicing a text together builds community among actors, as well as enhancing an actor’s relationship to the text.
Burke, now an associate professor in the Department of Drama at the University of Virginia, went on sabbatical in 2010. She traveled to eight countries over six months, doing text-based work with playwriting students, Shakespeare ensembles, and other theatre groups. She returned to Virginia energized to continue text-based work, and was invited by Rev. Dr. John P. Chandler – a leader among Baptist clergy – to lead a workshop for preachers on voice presentation skills.
She had the idea of bringing a Scripture passage and working it the way she would work a Shakespeare passage, and chose a section from Ezekiel for her workshop with Baptist clergy. As Burke led them through the text – breaking it down line by line, word by word, exploring the architecture of the words – there was a moment everyone in the group was so moved by the proclamation that they were suddenly, simultaneously silent.
This theophany planted a seed in Burke’s heart since she is not only a vocal coach, actor and Shakespeare specialist, but also a cradle Catholic who has gone to Mass weekly for her whole life. Like many of us, she has heard scripture proclaimed and homilies preached Sunday after Sunday.
“How many readings have I heard over the years?” Burke – who is now in her sixth decade – asked rhetorically. “Sometimes I wonder when people walk out of a proclamation of the word…do they even take the reading with them? Do they remember it well enough to take it home? People come to liturgy out of guilt, or in fatigue, or distracted by their technology…there are so many veils between congregation and presiders, between listeners and proclaimers. The question is: how to part the veil?”
Burke sensed that the veil can be parted and began to intuit a divine call to minister to preachers, presiders and proclaimers with the text-based approach she had learned at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Her ministry was born out of discernment of the call to use her decades of theatre training and experience and her passion for the spoken word to enhance liturgy.
“Words are heard, understood and felt because they have been proclaimed,” says Burke. “The mission of this work is to invite humans, believers…to deeply hear the Word, understand it, and feel it.”
She encourages participants in her workshops to form a “reading huddle:” to stand in a tight circle, imagining they are the earliest believers in the catacombs, half-expecting Roman soldiers to burst in at any moment as they proclaim the words of scripture in unison to encourage one another. This exercise led one participant to share that “it felt like someone walked in here with a papyrus and unrolled it, and we heard that reading for the very first time” – which is probably the most that any proclaimer could hope to achieve in her or his proclamation.
At the end of the evening, Burke closed the session by inviting each of us to proclaim one of the psalms. After having waited my turn to proclaim one word or one line, the opportunity to proclaim psalm 130 in its entirety to the group felt like a tremendous privilege. The ancient words of lament and hope – which have been chanted, sung, and proclaimed for millennia in hundreds of languages – had become paradoxically both more my words and more our words. Psalm 130 had become at once personal and universal. I had found I could, in fact, engage meaningfully with scripture texts even without a pile of dictionaries and commentaries.
We had voiced the words in more ways that I had imagined were possible. We had walked around the sanctuary, we shouted the words at the same time, creating a cacophony. We had chanted the words in unison. We had whispered the words. We had declared the words line by line. We had stood shoulder to shoulder, leaning in against each other as we announced the words. I had heard the words proclaimed in the voices of six other women gathered. The psalms felt like old friends. Indeed, the two-dimensional words on the page had become three-dimensional, just as Burke had promised. More than once we had been moved to tears.
I stepped out of the church sanctuary back into the cool spring rain with the words of the psalms reverberating inside my body. And I thought of Burke’s reflection on the prologue of John’s gospel: “’in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh’…and still dwells among us.”