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.

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.

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?

Continue reading