“A Bruised Reed He Shall not Break”

Who was I to blog about peace?  All the peace that I sought seemed to disappear on Friday as I learned that a good friend of mine (my first college voice teacher, an important mentor, and an all around inspiration) had a terrible car accident between Green Bay and Milwaukee and is now lying unconscious and on a breathing machine at the hospital.  “The whole world was at peace”?  Certainly not here, not in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  This situation has haunted me this weekend as I struggled to go about my business.  “And what about my blog post?  How can I think of anything else?”, I thought.  Thus, I’ve decided to share with you honestly my journey this weekend, hoping that it will be of some help to you and me.

Upon hearing the news on Friday, I asked my parents to pray with me and then I prayed with my boyfriend.  My contributions both times were not very elegant — I’m not so good at praying extemporaneously with others — but I needed to do something, anything.  Eventually, I had to sleep — the general busyness of the week and the emotions of the moment caught up with me and left me drained.

Yesterday, I turned to the readings for today for inspiration.  One of the advantages of being a member of both the MCC and Catholic churches is that I often get two sets of readings for Sunday.  Today’s first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Isaiah 43:1-7.  Verse 5 jumped out at me:

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. (The Inclusive Bible)

This reading is obviously what David Haas used as a basis of “You Are Mine.”  Here’s the chorus:

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

Being a church choir nerd, I must have sung this a million times, many of those being funerals.  Thus, the song filled me with a mix of emotions.  It’s beautiful music.  And yet we often sing it when someone passes away.  It speaks of bringing someone home.  “Oh dear Lord, are you going to bring my friend home?”

At Mass at my Catholic parish this morning, Fr. Tim unlocked for me the power in the first reading in the Roman Catholic lectionary.  In this reading, a chapter earlier in Isaiah, we find:

A bruised reed he will not break (42:3, NAB)

Fr. Tim used the image of a broken stem on a poinsettia, which instead of being chopped off and thrown out, is propped up with a stick and given the best chance at healing.  So my friend is lying in the hospital incredibly broken, and God, through the ministry of the doctors and nurses, is doing everything possible to heal this “bruised reed.”  Wow.

I don’t know what happens next, but it won’t be easy.  I’ve learned not to ask why; I still need to learn how to deal with the feeling of powerlessness.  I’m grateful for my virtual and physical communities that are willing to set aside religious differences and come together in prayer.

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church.  He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.

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Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

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The cast of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” (image: http://www.mylifetime.com)

Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life.  The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky.  The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a  difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”

An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment.  This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process.  Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God.  Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative.  Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.

 “The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.”  One of the girls hyperventilated.  Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.”  Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks.  To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more.  During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”

Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama.  In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love.  Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.

“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived.  The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.”   An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged.  The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension.  The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.

Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited.  The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today.  For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way.  Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual.  Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.”  Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.

Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service.  From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent.    The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.

Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability.  These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us.  Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.

I found myself wondering:  How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled?  Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days?  Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters?  The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.

Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited.  In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.

More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls.  I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases.  Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.

Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV.  However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners.  As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back.  Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.

In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a  realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”

For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!

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(image: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – http://www.lcwr.org)

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

How Christmas Happens

My first Advent after taking Scripture courses at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry was a memorable one. Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Raymond Brown, John Dominic Crossan, Elizabeth Johnson, and Marcus Borg books lined my shelves. Their ideas filled my thinking which in turn informed my praying. I had different ears when I heard the familiar proclamations in liturgy of Isaiah’s promise of lions and lambs living in peace, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, Joseph’s dream, the birth of Jesus.

There are two infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, each of them quite distinct, though through carols, pageants, and Christmas cards they have been seamlessly merged in our imagination. Looking at the narratives with a critical scholarly eye is an entirely different exercise than looking at them on the surface level. A hermeuntic of suspicion had replaced a hermeneutic of sentimentality.  Through study I wrestled with the questions: who wrote these narratives? When, why, and to whom? How historically accurate are they? What can we know or reasonably infer about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth?

Like many a divinity school student, the influx of academic knowledge changed my experience of Advent and Christmas.

“Do you think it really happened that way?” I asked my friend Brian one cold winter evening at the Catholic Worker farm as we gathered wood for a Christmas Eve bonfire.

“I mean,” I explained, as we tramped through the woods picking up kindling, “do you think there were really shepherds, wise men, the star, angels…all that is described in Luke and Matthew?”

I was asking about his perception of the historical veracity of the infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, but Brian heard my question differently.

“I think it really happens that way,” he answered. “I think God comes into this world poor and in unexpected places.”

He went on to say – his breath coming out in cold white puffs before his face – that the stories need not be dissected as historical documents but rather offer us a timeless pattern of truth. That it’s not so much a matter of what literally happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Instead they provide a lens through which we can look for the inbreaking of God in the world today.

Coming in ways that are small, poor, hidden, unexpected.

Coming into a world torn by violence, battered by the death-dealing forces of empire, struggling against powers and principalities that seek to extinguish the light.

Coming in glory – though not a glory that we understand or can even see.

“I think it really happens that way.”

His words pulled me out of the academic rabbit hole into which I had plunged and put my feet back on the earth. Brian’s response invited a new set of questions for me. Not questions to be explored through poring over Greek intralinear Bibles, studying the cultural and political realities of the Ancient Near East, or reading weighty academic tomes on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship – as worthy as those endeavors may be.   Rather, they are questions to be explored through the mysteries and messiness of service, community, and human relationship.

In what poor, unexpected corners of today’s world might the Divine be being birthed?

Where the one named Prince of Peace might be found amid the violence of Syria, Honduras, Ferguson?

Who are the ones for whom there is no room at the inn?

Brian and I gathered with other members of the Catholic Worker community that Christmas Eve, about a dozen of us gathered in prayer under the stars of a cloudless night sky. We were black and white, young and old, children and elders, ex-felons and ministers. Some of us wrestling with demons of addiction or mental illness others with those of consumerism and compulsive over-achieving. Saints and sinners all, standing in silence before the heat of the light of the fire. All of us claiming the promise of Emmanuel – God with us.

Christmas happens this way.

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About the author: Rhonda Miska is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, she spent the last nine years living in Central Virginia where her ministries included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Celebration of Catholic Women’s Vocations – Mary Ruppert

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, faith-based non-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, and many other settings.

This post on Mary Ruppert is the third in a series which celebrates Catholic lay women’s vocations and profiles some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. Past profiles include Kate Burke (New Lectio Divina) and Rita Emmenegger (medical missioner) If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.

– Rhonda Miska

John Schofield and Mary Ruppert have been friends through L'Arche for eight years. (photo: Bethany Keener)

John Schofield and Mary Ruppert have been friends through L’Arche for eight years. (photo: Bethany Keener)

“It was a frustrating experience…at first. I wanted to do something.”

So describes Mary Ruppert her first experience of L’Arche – an inter-denominational Christian community which includes people with intellectual disabilities (called “core members”) – during a spring break service trip with Loyola University. She and her fellow students found themselves receiving hospitality, sharing meals with core members and assistants, and learning about L’Arche philosophy as well as helping out around the house. Compared the students who had gone to do construction and home repair over spring break, Ruppert felt like she wasn’t doing enough.

That all changed the last day of the service trip when the group met up with some L’Arche community members at a local church. Ruppert recalls, “this one core member saw us come in the door and his face just changed in an instant from stoic and serious to utter joy. A huge smile. He starts waving with two hands – like he didn’t have enough arms to wave he was so happy to see us. All we had done was walk in the door. I realized it’s not about what I can do, it’s just that I exist. I’m here.” Continue reading

“We were just sitting there talking”: the Guerrilla Communion saga continues

Last Sunday afternoon, Guerrilla Communion met for the first time in Chicago. We had thirteen young adults, more than one might expect on a crisp but dazzling spring weekend.

We gathered in a cozy little library near the Loop. It was literally an “upper room,” lending a kind of Acts of the Apostles feel. We had soup and salad and quinoa. We also had an array of salsas and chips and homemade desserts.

While we ate, we talked about the joys and struggles of belonging to a church that has profoundly shaped us, but does not always know what to do with us. There was no agenda. It flowed naturally for three hours. Continue reading

The Word in Peace, Divine Mercy Sunday: It is in community that we see to believe

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)

As I mentioned in a recent post on the CTA 20/30 blog, Good Pope John XXIII is a special saint to me. As I was a lapsed Catholic adrift in a spiritual Nowhere Land, the Italian pope with a big belly and an even bigger heart taught me the much of the good that is to be found in our faith tradition. So it was something of a no-brainer for me to decide to visit the newly rededicated St. John XXIII (until today Blessed Pope John XXIII) parish in South Fort Myers to join the celebratory mass.

Both this parish and its patron saint embody that crucial component of Christian conduct: a sense of community. St. John welcomed the world with open arms, reaching out to Jews, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, even those “godless” communists. He was not posturing; the pope’s actions showed that he really saw the people of the world as his brothers and sisters.

St. John XXIII parish does much to live up to this commission. There is a dynamic pastor, numerous ministries and, most importantly, an enthusiastic congregation.

It is in fellowship with others that we as Christians have the chance to live out our faith. The First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the Church first establishes itself and performs its “many wonders and signs” (2:43) through communal living, sharing possessions, caring for the sick and needy of the community, and joining each other at the table (vv. 44-46).

Thomas the apostle provides us with an example of belief emerging from community in the Gospel reading. When he was away from the other disciples, Thomas is, as most of us would be, skeptical when he learned of the resurrection (John 20:25). But notice that Jesus does not go out to find Thomas to validate himself. He waits until Thomas returns, giving the apostle the opportunity to see and believe among other believes. It is at that moment that he makes that great confession of Christ’s divinity, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28)

As the Second Reading tells us, we believe even though we have not seen Jesus (1 Peter 1:8). But that does not happen on its own. We must see the image of God in every person that we encounter if we are to truly live in union with God. And we can’t do that by staying home every day. Even hermits communicate the Good News with others from time to time.