Of Habits and Hobbits

“I was expecting, you know…hobbits.” My friend Valerie said this to me with surprise and perhaps a touch of disappointment after she spent time with Catholic Sisters.

Hobbits?” I asked, immediately imagining Bilbo Baggins and his ilk running through the chapel and dining hall of the motherhouse. “Wait, do you mean habits?”

She caught herself and realized that she had inadvertently confused the term for the traditional dress of women religious with the humanoid Middle-Earth residents of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In Valerie’s defense, she made this slip before her morning cup of coffee!)

This is one of many conversations I have had since moving in with a community of women religious. I’ve fielded questions from friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and near-strangers. Some questions are funny and off-the-wall – often related to portrayals of sisters in pop culture like the movie “Sister Act” or the reality TV show “The Sisterhood.” Other questions are poignant and thoughtful; they lead to great explorations of big topics like community, justice, feminism, spirituality, ministry, human sexuality, and everything in between.

One question I have been asked more than once is: “Do you live with real nuns?”

At first, the question was confusing. What did this mean? Do people think I live with “imposter” nuns? What would render a sister fake? I wondered. I’ve come to realize the question they are really posing is if I live with habited sisters. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary modified their dress in response to the Vatican II document Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis).  They moved to a simple blue suit without a veil. Now they wear contemporary dress with a ring and a medal as a sign of their vowed commitment and membership in the community.

There are women religious – from postulants to jubilarians – who are attracted to the habit and I don’t challenge their desire for distinctive dress. Some believe the habit gives a powerful, visible public witness to a sister’s identity as a consecrated woman in the world and opens the door to ministry. Others find that the habit separates women religious and leads people to put them on a pedestal which negatively impacts their ability to do ministry. Sister Susan Rose Francois’ Habits of Love or Sister Sophia Park’s Beyond Habits and No Habits (both on the Global Sisters Report website) explore the habit question. There are valid reasons for both sides of the habit argument and it’s not something I seek to hash out here.

What I do challenge is the idea that what women religious wear marks the authenticity of their identity as consecrated women. A nun or sister is not more or less committed, faithful, or prophetic based on her choice of dress. From the full habit to a simple pin or cross there are many ways that women religious today choose to externally present themselves. What dress will allow women to best serve the people they seek to serve? What will facilitate their ministries? What will communicate the message they seek to communicate about their way of being in the world? These are the questions that guide individual sisters and congregations. Especially during this Year of Consecrated Life, it seems more relevant than ever to stress that religious life is not a fashion statement.

As a keen observer of contemporary women’s religious life and a guest in many convents and motherhouses, I have concluded that what women religious wear is the least interesting thing about them. The sisters of Giving Voice, a national organization of younger women religious, echo this observation in their February 2010 letter in which they state “our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention.”

The preoccupation with the habit question seems to me an application of the ubiquitous sexist rule that what matters for men is the substance of what they do, whereas for women it is how we look while doing it. It’s clearly present in the entertainment industry where singers, actresses, and other performers are subjected to constant and intense scrutiny about their dress, weight, hair and makeup – just glance at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line. Commentators are more likely to focus on female politician’s pantsuit collection, hair accessories, and makeup than they are on her policies and ideas.

Is our hang-up with habits just a religious application of this same principle? If so, the response should be a strong, unequivocal emphasis on the full human dignity of all women whose identity is infinitely more than their physical appearance and wardrobe and whose gifts must be named and celebrated.

What women wear – whether we are nuns or world leaders, nurses or grandmothers, CEOs or gardeners – does not define us. I have been blessed to meet and develop relationships with women religious who have spent decades as teachers, spiritual directors, police chaplains, counselors, pastoral ministers, academics, artists, activists, administrators and more. Their fidelity to God, commitment to mission, and passion for service would make them “real” sisters in anyone’s book – whether they are wear a coif or a cardigan.

So if you come to the motherhouse where I live – or to many other motherhouses around the United States – expecting to see habits (or hobbits, for that matter!) you won’t find them. But if you come to find “real sisters” – that is, consecrated women striving to live lives of service and prayer in community, animated by their charism and vision of God’s kin-dom, committed to God and to one another – you will not be disappointed.

 

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 (real nuns!) at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

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Mary, the woman who is one of us

Mary crushing the serpent.

Mary crushing the serpent.

 The night before I flew to Miami for a month of service at Americans for Immigrant Justice, I walked the Villa Maria land. It is land the Sisters of the Humility of Mary have lived on for 150 years; land that I had come to know well over my summer working retreat. As I walked the path back from the pumpkin field, I came across a sizable dead garden snake. The snake’s head had been crushed, apparently run over by the wide wheel of a tractor.

Perhaps because I’d been permeated with Marian spirituality over the summer or perhaps because I’m a poet and relentlessly metaphorical in my thinking, the unexpected discovery immediately brought to mind images of Mary crushing a snake beneath her feet. This is a common image in Western art, inspired by interpretations of Genesis 3:15 which states that Eve will “strike at the head” of the serpent as well as Revelation 12 with its strange, compelling description of the woman clothed with the sun and her apocalyptic clash with the “ancient serpent.”

As I stood in the field pondering the sight of the crushed snake, I recalled the triumphant hymn we had sung recently for the Feast of the Assumption: “Hail, holy Queen enthroned above!”

Many of us are familiar with this presentation of Mary as holy Queen which de-emphasizes her humanity. She’s draped in yards of fabric, wearing a crown, with stars or a halo around her head. Triumphant over evil. Idealized. Holy. Seemingly perfect. Surrounded by angels. Her feet on clouds. The recipient of all kinds of titles in litanies from “singular vessel of devotion” to “mystical rose” to “gate of heaven.”

Mary of Nazareth (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as in the film "The Nativity Story" (New Line Cinema, 2006).

Mary of Nazareth (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in the film “The Nativity Story” (New Line Cinema, 2006).

In contrast to this powerful, heavenly, serpent-crushing de facto goddess, there is another Mary. In St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: a Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, we are presented with a real flesh-and-blood woman. In contrast to the white, Western Mary of art Johnson offers the historical, Jewish Miriam of Nazareth.   A female in a patriarchal system. Politically oppressed by Roman imperial forces.   Pregnant outside of marriage. Poor. A peasant. Displaced by threats of violence. A refugee.

To use a term of Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, this Miriam of Nazareth was a no persona (non-person) in her society. In today’s language we would describe her as a woman touched by the intersections of multiple oppressions.

I thought of this Miriam of Nazareth often during the time I spent accompanying migrant children fleeing violence in Central America. After days spent in court documenting testimonies of migrant children I spent muggy Miami evenings on a porch swing watching heat lightning and reading Johnson’s depiction of Miriam of Nazareth. The resonance between Johnson’s portrait and the stories of migrant girls and boys was strong and compelling. Biblical scholars posit that Mary was likely fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus – the age of many of the migrant girls in immigration proceedings.

Miriam of Nazareth in Palestine two millennia ago was vulnerable in a way that the serpent-crushing, untouchably-holy, heavenly-pedestaled Mary can never be. I admit I don’t like this vulnerable Mary as much. The pedestal Mary seems safer, cleaner, holier, and a whole lot less challenging. She remains firmly inside the sanctuary in marble statues and glowing stained glass windows, feet in the clouds, high above my head.

Yet maybe part of my own conversion is to embrace this Miriam of Nazareth who is “truly our sister” in our human limitations and vulnerabilities. The incredible vulnerabilities of the migrant girls who have witnessed murders of family and friends, quit school to escape persecution by gangs, left behind all that is familiar, survived sexualized violence in the journey, endured harassment and hunger in the hieleras, and now face an uncertain future as they await the decision of a judge.

Perhaps the image of Mary Triumphant is – as her presence in the Book of Revelation suggests – an ultimate, eschatological, future-oriented image. Perhaps the Marian image more needed for our times is closer to the one presented by Johnson – a grittier, human, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground Mary, who invites a deeper awareness of our own vulnerabilities as well as a deeper solidarity with those who are extraordinarily vulnerable.

When this Mary proclaims her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) of a God who will “raise up the lowly,” “fill the hungry with good things,” and “scatter the proud-hearted,” it ceases to be simply a lyrical piece of liturgical poetry. The political implications are immediate and challenging. It raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions: Who among us in this time and place is lowly? Hungry? Who are the proud-hearted? Where are the places in my own heart that are proud? How do we act in the Spirit of this justice-seeking God here and now?

One of the migrant girls I accompanied in court was a Honduran teenager named Paula who wore – as I do – a medal of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe around her neck. Under the bare feet of the Guadalupe of her medal – and mine – is a serpent, crushed by this powerful, loving mother. Paula gently fingered her medal as she told me her story of traveling through El Salvador and Mexico, crossing the border at Reynosa, being apprehended by the Border Patrol. Subconsciously, my hand went up to my own Guadalupe medal as I took notes of Paula’s testimony. It suddenly felt as though there were three women sitting together in that over-air-conditioned court room in downtown Miami: Paula, myself, and this mother that she and I – across difference of age, race, language, economic status – both claim.

Mary is supremely polyvalent – maybe even paradoxical. She is Johnson’s Miriam of Nazareth, the companion of Paula and so many girls and women like her who live extraordinarily vulnerable lives. At the same time, she is that triumphant Queen of Heaven, pointing to a future hope: the promise of the world prophesied in her Magnificat, of a future in which evil in all its forms will be vanquished. This now-and-future Mary at once invites us to struggle in concrete ways for the construction of the future and to rejoice in the glimpses of peace and justice which are granted to us in our efforts.

Robert Lenz's Madre de los Desaparecidos (Mother of the Disappeared)

Robert Lenz’s Madre de los Desaparecidos (Mother of the Disappeared)

 

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.

The chasm had become visible

Via Amazon.com.

Via Amazon.com.

[Trigger warning: discussion of violence, sexual assault.]

About a month ago, I was traveling. Whenever I travel, I hunt for books. The title of one particular book screamed at me from a shelf in the Harvard Co-op: Men Explain Things to Me. I dove for my credit card.

Men Explain Things to Me is an anthology of essays by San Francisco journalist Rebecca Solnit. The title comes from the first essay, a 2008 Internet classic that I’ve referenced before, but hadn’t read in full until I bought the anthology. In it, Solnit relates how a resolutely clueless man cornered her at a party, pontificating to her about a book he had not read but that she herself had written, all the while ignoring a friend who kept saying, “That’s her book.”

Solnit observed: “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.” Her sentence inspired a neologism: “mansplaining.”  Continue reading

Fox News, Women Priests, Black Smoke, and the Whole Self

Recently, my friend Jenny published an article at Relevant about women in ministry, in response to a recent report that women are leaving the church at twice the rate that men are. This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

“It’s not so much that women feel the Church doesn’t value the contributions they do make; it’s that they don’t see opportunities or don’t feel the freedom to bring their whole selves to the table.”

This pretty much sums up my whole experience within the Catholic Church. I always felt drawn to the Church, loved it, even, but continuously felt as if I just couldn’t quite fit. Even at age ten, the arguments against women’s ordination made no sense to me, and they make just as little sense now. I believe what kind of family planning a couple decides to use is none of the Church’s business. And as a bisexual woman, I believe that God would have blessed my love just as much if I’d fallen in love with a woman as I feel God has blessed my love (and me) when I married my husband. When it comes to issues of sex and gender in the Catholic Church, most of my writing and exploration has followed the consistent theme of never being able to feel completely whole in the roles assigned to me by my church.

Pink smoke would look so much less ominous.

I normally wouldn’t have watched the coverage of the Vatican conclave (we don’t have a TV), but Fox News happened to be playing it while I waited in the lobby to get my car worked on today, so I saw the black smoke rise. A priest gave commentary to a correspondent about how the conclave hadn’t been able to come to a clear agreement on the Papal successor, and the correspondent asked, “Well, isn’t it especially hard when you exclude half of the population?”

I’d brought work with me, and so I’d been trying not to get too distracted by the news. But this made me put my book down. Was Fox News asking about women’s ordination?

Indeed they were. The priest responded by talking out of both sides of his mouth. First, he said that he thinks it would be wonderful if there were more women involved in positions of power within the Church, and that he would love it if women took a more active role in choosing the next Pope. As if the lack of women at the conclave is because, you know, those women just don’t get involved.  What he failed to explain, for those watching who may not have been familiar with Catholicism, is that only Cardinals are allowed at that conclave. And only priests can advance to the position of Cardinal. And only men can be priests. Which means that if we want more women involved in that level of decision making, we need to a) ordain women or b) open the power structure up to include the laity. But he didn’t suggest either of those things outright — my suspicion is because, to do so, he’d have to admit that the problem doesn’t lay with “uninvolved” women, but with a Church that systematically shuts them out.

After that, he gave the usual excuses about the male apostles, and he offered a delightful twist (they always do!) about how, “Men and women were just designed by God to play different roles. I don’t consider it unfair that I don’t get to give birth!”

The Fox News correspondent didn’t seem convinced; and I felt grateful for women like Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who I know are the reason mainstream news sources are talking about these issues. The Vatican may be able to shut us out, but it can’t shut us up!

In the meantime, I’m attending a United Church of Christ church, where I can bring more of my whole self to the table than I can in my native tradition. It still doesn’t satisfy all of me. I miss Holy Water, Catholic hymns, and the ritual of the Eucharist. But the pastors at this church know I come from a Catholic tradition, know that I still have ties to the church, and everyone is OK with that. They know more about my “whole self” than I’ve ever shared with a Catholic priest.

A few weeks ago, one of the pastors asked me whether I was going to write about the resignation of Pope Benedict for this blog. I said I didn’t have much to say about it. I still don’t have a lot to say — the Papacy feels so distant from my day-to-day spirituality, from who I am as a Christian or even a Catholic. And while I wait with a certain level of semi-detached interest, I’ll really start paying attention when, as folk musician Dierdre Flint says, “they declare Pope Catherine.”

What’s the body got to do with God?

stteresa-ecstasyof-gianlorenzobernini-500I was talking about the body last week at a Halloween party.  A friend had asked me, “If God is transcendent, how are our bodies important for connecting to God? Can’t we just use our reason? Maybe even emotion?  What’s the body got do with it?”  I was surprised by my reaction.  My gut instinct was to aggressively defend the sacred nature of the body–I’m a feminist! Feminists care about bodies! I must salvage the body! Instead of simply pouncing on this genuine friend with my feminist enthusiasm, I began to explore the origin of his question. “Haven’t you experienced God through physical ritual and practice? Through spiritual disciplines of fasting or feasting? Maybe through sexual desire even?”

“No. Not really.”

Hmmph. For some reason, instead of charging back with those pent up imperatives, I began to think about how I came to take for granted the seemingly obvious role of the body in my spirituality. Was this rooted in my Catholicity–in my belonging to a faith characterized by the standing,  kneeling, eating, drinking, singing, and moving around of the Sunday liturgy? Or was it simply a personal reaction to all the body-bashing I find in Catholic sexual ethics?  Was it an outgrowth of the Church’s social teachings about the goodness of creation and our affirmation of embodied life?

I brought these questions with me as the school week started.  On Tuesday nights, I gather with a few other first year students at the Harvard Div School to discuss primary texts written by Christian mystics. While a number of tangental topics arose, as usual–prayer, scripture, liturgy–the mystics kept bringing me back to these questions of the body. Continue reading