Of dinosaurs and discernment

“Every now and then it helps to step back and take the long view…”

Carnegie Natural History Museum (credit: http://www.carnegiemnh.org)

 

These are the opening lines of a reflection attributed to Salvadoran Archbishop (perhaps soon-to-be-saint) Oscar Romero. “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision,” he goes on to say. What might it mean to take the long view?

Debbie Blue in her book Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, writes that “in 1973 a griffon vulture collided with an aircraft flying 37,900 feet.” That is over seven miles, the highest ever recorded altitude for a bird. Blue challenges us to find new ways of thinking about God as we reflect on creation – even or especially on those species considered less-than-majestic, like the vulture. Might even vultures – a species we normally consider unappealing if not downright ugly – reveal something of the Divine face to us in their ability to ride the air currents and take in all below them? Certainly if we seek to take the long view, the griffon vulture provides a powerful example from the natural world.

Another inspiration from the natural world came during a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was a grey, cold December day, and I had a case of what I have come to term the “discernment blues.” I knew I needed a change in scenery and a break from wrestling with those big, thorny questions of call. So I drove to Pittsburgh and spent the day wandering among skeletons of tyrannosaurus rex, diplodocus, apatasauras, and many others. I walked through the Mesozoic era and learned about the slow evolution of various species long before mammals were part of the picture.

Throughout the exhibit, time is measured in mya (millions of years). The tour guide told us that dinosaurs walked the earth for 180 million years. In contrast, we human beings have been on the scene for 9 to 12 million. As the example of the griffin vulture invites me to “take the long view” in terms of space, reflecting on the Carnegie Museum’s dinosaurs invites me to “take the long view” in terms of time.

If all of world history could be condensed into twenty-four hours, homo sapiens sapiens (that’s us) would come on the scene at two seconds before midnight. To stretch even further back, dinosaurs only enter the world scene at 10:56 pm.   This serves as a humbling reminder that it is not all about us. That human beings – as beautiful and unique as we might be – aren’t, in fact, the focal point of life on this planet. That God’s creation starting with that initial flaring forth nearly 14 billion years ago is much vaster than I usually consider. This creation includes myriad species which came before us and – potentially – myriad others who will come after us. Human history is an eye blink of time if you start counting with the Big Bang. And, of course, the earth is one planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of an estimated 200 billion galaxies in this expanding universe.

You Are Here

(Credit: Pixshark.com)

 

Feeling small yet?

Beyond an invitation to humility, it’s also an invitation to awe and wonder – which as Catholics we name as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Awe and wonder at all that has come before us as well as that which may come in the future. Theologian John Haught speaks of “a universe still aborning” to describe the reality that nature is incomplete and subject to ongoing creativity.

I drove back to the motherhouse after my day contemplating dinosaurs with those big, thorny questions of call still alive within me. Yet somehow my time at the Carnegie did bring some consolation amid the discernment blues.

Geologian (no, that’s not a typo – it’s a combination of the words geologist and theologian!), scholar, teacher and Passionist priest Thomas Berry often repeated the phrase: “we are not a collection of objects, we are a communion of subjects.” I am only one of nearly seven billion human beings currently alive in the world. And human beings are only present in a tiny percentage of cosmic history. We are part of a communion of many, many subjects – past, present, and future. From quarks to quails, from amoeba to avaceratops, from vultures to vine maples – we humans are one strand in an enormous, complex, beautiful web of God’s creation.

Yet I as an individual and we as a species have a role to play with the Creator in the ongoing creation of this “universe still aborning.”   With humility, awe, and wonder we strive to “step back and take the long view.” We celebrate that we are simultaneously infinitely small and yet infinitely significant.

 

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.

Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

sisterhood

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!

Card_5

(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.

On “doing something”

I tweeted this more than a week ago. It hasn’t gotten better.

To Israel and Gaza we added Michael Brown. To Michael Brown we added Robin Williams. To Robin Williams we added the Ferguson protests and the mindbogglingly brutal crackdowns on those protests. To that we added ISIS and a “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq. Ukraine is still erupting, has been the whole time. And last night, police shot another black man in St. Louis.

I tweeted because I was, even then, overwhelmed by words and images. I know when I say this I am speaking from a place of great privilege. Other people must live the horror. I get to sit at my laptop, talking about the sensory overload I am receiving there. Continue reading

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

Celebration of Catholic Women’s Vocations – Rita Emmenegger

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 Rita Emmennegger is a second in a series which celebrates Catholic lay women’s vocations and profiles some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. Last month’s profile was on Kate Burke and her New Lectio Divina ministry.  If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.

– Rhonda Miska

Rita Emmennegger - nurse and medical missioner

Rita Emmennegger – nurse and medical missioner

About once a year while I was growing up and attending Sunday Mass at St. Bernard’s parish in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, Rita Emmenegger would speak in place of the homily. She shared the story of her medical mission work in Nicaragua and of her hospitality to Nicaraguan children in need of medical care. For me, her testimonies served as one of the first windows into the larger world – a world I could hardly imagine – far beyond our comfortable suburb.

Years later, as a college senior, I received a phone call from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps inviting me to spend two years serving in Cusmapa, Nicaragua.  It was memories of Emmenegger’s Sunday morning stories that helped bolster my courage to say yes to that call, and to step into that larger world.  So, as I continue this series which celebrates the ways women discern and answer calls, it feels fitting to hold up the life and ministry of Rita Emmenegger: nurse, medical missioner, wife, mother of four children, and foster mother to seven Nicaraguan children.

Continue reading

Celebration of Catholic Women’s Vocations: Kate Burke

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

Kate Burke - founder of New Lectio Divina ministry (photo: Michael Bailey)

Kate Burke – founder of New Lectio Divina ministry (photo: Michael Bailey)

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?

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The Word in Peace, Second Sunday of Lent: Where am I going?

4CatholicEducators.com

Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9

Abram went as the LORD directed him. (Genesis 12:4)

How many of you have faced a decision about moving to a far-off place or to a major career change? In today’s world of expansive communication and transportation, few of us can answer “no” to that question. But the fact that it is now easier to uproot oneself does not make the decision to do so any easier.

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