Requiem for a Never-Ending Conversation: Remembering Mark

One week ago last night, I watched as one of my best friends died.

Longtime readers of this blog knew him as commenter Mark S.

Mark was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in early 2013.

But our conversation had begun years before that, not long after my manager had hired him. He was passing by my office when he heard me laughing while delightedly telling my officemate that the American Academy of Religion was devoting an entire session at their upcoming conference to discuss whether or not Pastafarianism — the cultus of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — qualified as an actual religion. He backtracked a couple of steps, stood at the doorway listening till I wound down, and then said, “Wait… what? You obviously take your religion pretty seriously – you have a flyer for a religion lecture on your bulletin board – but you’re laughing about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”

In retrospect I can hear him thinking, “Don’t you know the FSM was made up by a bunch of atheists who are mocking you? You’re supposed to be offended, not amused. What kind of a Christian *are* you?”

So I burbled on a bit about how fabulous I thought it was that religious studies people could use the FSM as a test particle to probe the definition of “religion.” He said, “That’s interesting, I’d like to hear more about that – maybe we can have lunch sometime and talk about it.” And so our conversation began.

I don’t think he’d ever met an irreverent religious person before. A few months later, after a set of office moves had placed us next to each other in a bullpen, I told him one of my favorite Catholic jokes. When I got to the punchline, he laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair, then looked at me with an expression of real shock on his face and said, “I think they’re supposed to burn you at the stake after that!” (At which point *I* laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair.)

That summer was the beginning of our afternoon conversation walks. We had started to design a test management and reporting system — I wanted a tool that would help me monitor & investigate data-dependent failures in the hundreds of tests I was writing for a software package we were commissioning, and he wanted a tool that would simplify his daily chore of running & checking the status of an increasingly disparate set of the branch’s nightly tests. The building we were in was so cold that I suggested we go outside for our design discussions. So we’d go out and work for a while, either while we walked or after we’d found a good place to sit; and after we’d done about as much as we could do in one session, we’d take a break and talk philosophy before we went back inside. The next set of office moves placed us as officemates in a warm sunny office, so we didn’t need to go outside to warm up anymore. But almost every afternoon, we’d take a break to go for a walk (weather permitting) and talk philosophy.

“Philosophy” — well, that’s what he called it. It was our shorthand for conversation that ranged widely through ethics, evolution, theology, sociology, morality, science, science fiction (especially Star Trek) and beyond. We were always sending each other email with ideas or links to articles that would make good “conversation fodder.” He was especially interested human nature, in the history of warfare, and in what he considered the peculiar notion of “rules of war.” If the course I was taking that semester focused on moral theology or theological anthropology, I’d often send him my short homework papers so we could talk about them.

Mark was not the first atheist with whom I had discussed religion, of course, but his willingness and ability to enter into my theistic Christian Catholic worldview, in an attempt to understand, to empathize, and to ask probing and productive questions, was unmatched in my experience. We both appreciated the intellectual stimulation of being asked questions we hadn’t previously considered, or challenged on assumptions or inconsistencies we hadn’t noticed we possessed — the kinds of questions that can only be asked by a worldview outsider. The kind that keep you honest.

Sometimes we talked about why and how it was that our friendship, and our never-ending conversation, had blossomed and borne fruit (okay, that metaphor is all mine – he didn’t do metaphor), given that the more usual result of Christian-atheist discourse is incomprehension at best, acrimony at worst. We agreed that the key was our mutual respect and trust: it’s impossible to have an authentic conversation about things that matter deeply to you if you’re always wondering whether and when your conversation partner is going to turn on you.

Part of that trust was that neither of us ever tried to convert the other: that was built into the conversation right from the beginning. Oh, we each hoped that the other might come around, but we knew it was very unlikely. We’d explored the reasons for our belief and unbelief early on in the conversation, of course. He concluded that I was a rather compartmentalized thinker, and there were elements of my worldview that were simply incomprehensible to him, but he admired the seriousness with which I thought about and practiced my religion. I concluded that there was evidence available to me that was either unavailable to him or that he did not consider reliable, but I understood his reasoning, and I admired his unflinching dedication to the pursuit of truth. We occasionally talked about writing an article about it together; I wish we had. But then, there are so many things I wish we had done.

We had been good friends for several years on the day he said “Let’s go for a walk, I have something to tell you,” and told me that his annual physical had turned up something that looked like it was going to be very serious, either cancer or something equally grave; and that he didn’t know anything else yet, he needed to have more tests done. A few weeks later, we went for another walk, and he told me they’d determined it was definitely prostate cancer, but he needed more tests to determine how far it had spread; basically, he said, if it was still confined to the prostate then it was curable; otherwise, it was not. I walked with him, both literally and metaphorically, as he talked to doctor after doctor, having to recite what was going on over and over again each time. I walked with him during the unbearable days while he waited for the phone call with the test results that would tell him whether he was going to die. And I was in the office with him when he got that phone call: he hung up the phone, said “It got out,” and buried his face in his hands.

That was February, 2013. He was 49.

The thing about prostate cancer is that there are several hormone suppressant treatments, each operating in a slightly different way, that can slow or even temporarily reverse the growth of the cancer. But the thing about these treatments is, each one eventually stops working, and there’s no way to tell when that’s going to happen. There’s anecdata about patients that live for 10, 15 years on these treatments — every doctor we talked to had one; but the median survival time is 5 years, and you know there have to be some awfully short numbers to bring the median down to 5. Most men get prostate cancer significantly later in life, and it progresses slowly enough that many die from some other cause; men who are diagnosed young tend to have an extremely aggressive form of the cancer, as Mark did.

So most of the past two and a half years have been an ongoing series of cycles structured by the once-every-three-months blood test results that would tell whether the current treatment had stopped working, with the corresponding significant reduction in the amount of time he would have left. It felt like a continual series of crises. And it gave me a whole new understanding of “walking in the valley of the shadow of death.”

I am profoundly grateful that he was able to come to my graduation last year: because my academic work had been so integrally woven through my conversation with him.

Our friendship, which had been mostly confined to the office, went into high gear after his diagnosis: I started to hang out with Mark and his wife Carolyn on evenings and weekends, and we started carpooling one or two days a week — preferably on days with bad traffic, so we’d have more time for conversation. I was driving us home on one of those early carpool days when he said, “I’ve noticed you haven’t said you’re praying for me; though you told me you were praying for my dad when he was diagnosed with dementia. So I figured you were probably doing it anyway, but just not saying anything about it out of respect for my beliefs.”
“Pretty much,” I said. “It just really Did Not Seem Like the Time for your Christian friend to shove her beliefs in your face.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “But I wanted to let you know, it’s okay for you to talk about it, if you want to, or if it would naturally come up in conversation.”
Given that opening, I talked a bit about an insight I’d just had a day or two before: I’d been so busy praying for him, that I’d forgotten to pray for *myself*, that I would have the grace and strength to best support him through this, and to get through it myself.
“Does it help?” he asked. “Yes, it does seem to,” I replied.

And I was so touched that he remembered that; and, over the next weeks and months when I would occasionally break down and cry, my atheist friend would say to me,”Hey… don’t forget to pray for yourself. Somebody told me once that was helpful.”

Mark maintained a normal work schedule as much as possible throughout; he told me early on that he wanted to live as normal a life as possible. The cancer was going to take away thirty years he’d expected to live; he didn’t want to give it anything else. Work was also a helpful distraction; he’d rather come to work and think about programming than sit around at home all day thinking about the cancer.

It was my honor and privilege to be the person at work that he could talk to, as he struggled to absorb and cope with the fact that he was dying; or reflected on what his legacy would be; or researched the next available treatment options, and how much time they might buy him; or struggled with the socially ubiquitous greeting “How are you?” to which no one actually wanted to hear the answer “I’m dying.” I knew, too, that part of my job was to help with the living a normal life and the distraction: I collected conversation fodder even more assiduously, so I always had something ready when he’d say, “That’s enough depressing stuff for now… can we talk about something else?”

All the treatments had side effects, most noticeably fatigue. Our afternoon walks necessarily became slower, then shorter, and eventually stopped altogether; this year, we mostly took our afternoon breaks sitting in the cafeteria or on the terrace, but still talking all the while.

In February, there were some indications that the last available suppressant treatment was starting to be less effective on certain tumor sites, and he had a course of radiation treatment for several weeks to shrink a tumor that was causing him pain. In mid-May, the results of a diagnostic scan he’d had to see if he qualified for a clinical trial made it shockingly clear that the cancer had progressed to his liver (“large tumor”) and lungs (“innumerable lesions”). He immediately scheduled a round of chemotherapy, to try to kill off some of it; the night before starting chemo, he broke a rib – the one that had been weakened by a very large tumor. (They said he should go ahead with the chemo anyway.) While recovering from the chemo, he scheduled two more radiation treatments, both in an attempt to keep the cancer from getting to his spine and causing paralysis.

After that, his decline was shockingly rapid. At the end of June, he was no longer well enough to come to the office every day, and decided to transition to nearly full-time telecommuting; after a couple weeks, he realized he no longer had the energy even to keep up with email, and went on disability. In mid-July, we hoped that his symptoms were side effects of the chemo and radiation that he’d recover from after a few weeks.

At the end of July, he started home hospice care. A week later, the hospice people told us that, based on what they were seeing, they wouldn’t be surprised if he died within a week or two. In the middle of that week, he rallied for a couple of days: he had enough energy that thursday to visit with several of us from work, and even advise on a technical problem. But the next day, he declined again, and it was clear he was in his final days.

A couple of days later, Mark and I said our goodbyes, sadly and solemnly (well, mostly solemnly: he did say to me, “I’m glad I could be the atheist friend who wasn’t a dick about it.”), and with gratitude for the gifts of our friendship. And I said to him, with a sad smile, because I had said it to him so many times over the years, “And if I’m right… I’ll see you in heaven.”

A few days after that, on the evening of Saturday, August 15th, the feast of the Assumption, I watched and prayed as he breathed his last.

I have always described our friendship as a never-ending conversation. Now, I must find other words.

May the angels lead him into Paradise,
May the choirs of martyrs welcome him
And lead him to the holy city,
The new and eternal Jerusalem.
May he come to be
where Lazarus is poor no longer.
May he find eternal rest.
May he find eternal rest.

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Amazing Grace: the President preaches in the Black Church

I’d heard that President Obama delivered the eulogy for State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney; but that doesn’t begin to describe the sermon he preached.

I would especially encourage white Christians who are unfamiliar with the black church, to take half an hour and listen to this sermon, which inspired even a black atheist. It gave me a much greater appreciation of the central role that the black church has played in the African American community since the days of slavery, and also some insight into the liturgical and preaching style of the black church.

Let me reassure my Catholic readers that there is much you will find familiar in the sermon, although it is expressed in different ways: a call to “express God’s grace” where we would say “cooperate with God’s grace so that it bears fruit in our lives”, for example. But I heard nothing alien, and much to which I could say Amen.

For those who’d like to read more about the black church in America, this article by Michele M. Simmsparris on the significance of black church burnings is excellent: it necessarily explains the historical role of the black church in order to explain the significance of attacks on these churches.

I’d actually started this blog post a day or so after the funeral for Rev. Pinckney, and meant to post it then. But as it turns out, I think it is a helpful reflection for the Fourth of July, as we consider when and how this nation has, and has not, lived up to its professed acknowledgement that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights for all persons; and especially how white Americans have, at best, been willingly ignorant of the ways in which other white Americans have conspired to deny these rights to our black sisters and brothers, whether by more or less covert acts of racism, or by acts of terrorism like the Charleston massacre and the subsequent burning of black churches across the south.

America, America,
God mend thine every flaw:
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

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Love wins: Lectionary Reflection

A lectionary reflection for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

Wisdom:

All of creation is good. None of it is bad or destructive.

No human beings are ontologically ordered towards evil.

For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them

2 Corinthians:

(…Pause for a moment here, and remember that the church of Corinth, to whom Paul is writing here, was perpetually plagued by factionalism and divisiveness.)
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On the #AMEShooting in Charleston, SC

On Wednesday, June 17, an avowed white supremacist went to a Wednesday night Bible study and prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina: a historic church, the oldest black church south of Baltimore. The young man, who is white, was welcomed into the circle by its African American pastor and church members. The service continued.

After about an hour, he shot them.

He killed nine. Two survived by playing dead. He deliberately left one alive so she could tell what had happened, what he had said, that he had killed them because they were black, and black people “have to go.”

There are some things you have to know in order to fully appreciate the symbolism of this act. You have to know that the African Methodist Episcopal church was founded by black Christians who boldly followed the Good News of the gospel out of the segregated white churches and into congregations of their own. You have to know that this AME church, fondly called Mother Emanuel church, was founded by Denmark Vesey, and was later burned to the ground in the wake of rumours that he was planning a slave uprising and flight to Haiti. You have to know that this AME church was founded when chattel slavery was still legal in the United States. You have to know that the shooting occurred just two days before the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day when the last slaves in the United States finally found out they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

And you have to tell anybody who claims that this massacre is evidence that Christians are persecuted that they are full of shit. This was an act of white supremacist terrorism. The perpetrator was quite explicit about it.

I’m sorry. I don’t have anything else to say.

Please pray for the nine African American men and women who died, who surely went straight from having welcomed the stranger into the arms of Jesus:
– Cynthia Hurd
– Susie Jackson
– Ethel Lance
– Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
– Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor and state senator
– Tywanza Sanders
– Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr
– Rev. Sharonda Singleton
– Myra Thompson

Pray for their families, friends, loved ones, congregation. Pray for all the black people in this country that this act was intended to terrorize. Pray that God will comfort and console them.

Pray for their killer, for his associates, and for all white supremacists, that God will convert their hearts to repentance for their evil.

Pray for the United States & all who live here, especially those of us who are white, that God will move us and shake us so that we may finally confront and repent of our racist history, structures, institutions, and unconscious biases, and commit to acting for justice.

Please, read the links, and share your own prayers or resources in the comments.

Essential reading for white Catholics:

Confessing Our Vicious History: White Catholics and Violence Against Black Churches | WIT.

Any white Catholic response to the slaughter of these black Christians must begin by confessing that while black churches all over the United States struggled for freedom, white Catholic dioceses throughout the South were owning black slaves as a corporate body. Wealthy white Catholics sometimes deeded slaves to their dioceses in their wills.

Essential reading for all Christians: what the AME church asks. Includes address for donations.
THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS COUNCIL STATEMENT CONCERNING EMANUEL AME CHURCH IN CHARLESTON, SC | News and Announcements.

More Catholic reflections:

Praise and Lament: That We May Protect Life and Beauty | Daily Theology.

From Cheerful Recklessness to Sobriety: ‘Laudato Si’’ and Charleston | America Magazine.

Between Laudato Si’ and Black Lives Matter | The Jesuit Post.

[Pope Francis] argues that praising the God of creation includes being willing to challenge and transform systems, institutions, and our own patterns of comfort and consumption that fail to respect our duty to care for the planet and for each other. “Human life is itself a gift,” he says, “which must be defended from various forms of debasement.”

A Tale of Two Churches | Commonweal Magazine.

n the same way, the fact that the church targeted last night was another such community—a community not just of Americans and Christians, but of black Americans and black Christians—makes the shooting a very different sort of event than it would have been otherwise.

What did we expect? #BlackLivesMatter | Daily Theology.

What did we expect when, time and time and time again, the largest unified Christian denomination in the United States–Roman Catholicism–failed to consistently and vehemently repudiate the defilement of the human body that is racism in all its forms? What did we expect when the confederate flag is flown freely? What did we expect when gun laws remained lax, and racial tensions continued to grow? What did we expect would incur from the silence of the Church?

Becoming a Better Friend to Job | Daily Theology.

What must I do to be a better friend to Job, to be in solidarity with African Americans whose mourning and anger this week is the newest page in a long book of suffering?

More responses to the massacre:
What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston | Osheta Moore.

Murder in Charleston: The Episcopal Church Must Respond.

Anti-racist resources:
Where to start when you’re afraid to talk about race | between worlds.

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Book Review: The Just City

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to 4 stars than three.

A very difficult book to classify. One might say “The Just City” bears the same relationship to classical Greek philosophy that science fiction does to science.

It’s a story about an experimental attempt to create a city that embodies the ideals of Plato’s Republic, and the places where reality is simply incompatible with the ideal, thus illuminating flaws in that ideal.

It’s a sort of philosophical parable; the characters in the Just City (which include both adults from various times, and children/youths of ancient Greece) care and talk about justice, slavery, excellence, deception, and friendship. The practice of rhetoric is central in the way that the practice of science is in SF.

The viewpoint characters include a couple of Greek gods. Don’t let this put you off the book, or dismiss it as mythology: instead, accept them as real elements of the universe in which the book takes place. (Or, just consider them as aliens, if that’s more familiar.)

I liked the book very much, except for the treatment of one theme; but I also perceive that treatment to be a strength of the book (just, an unpleasant one to read).

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Easter Week

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter Week, or the Octave (eight days) of Easter, or Bright Week — so called because in the early church, those who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil and clothed in white garments would continue to wear those white garments all week, as they continued to be instructed in the faith, now that they had received the Holy Spirit.

As part of my Lenten and now Easter observance, I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours using the excellent People’s Companion to the Breviary. During Lent, it sensitized me to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as a day of praise: the psalms to be prayed on Sundays during the four week breviary cycle are noticeably praise psalms, especially the morning psalms.

And this week, all week, we are praying the same Sunday psalms that we prayed on Easter, over and over again. It has given me a deeper appreciation of the Octave of Easter, the eight days over which the Eighth Day is prolonged. It’s also given me a new appreciation for the function of the antiphons that precede and follow each psalm: because the antiphons are changing each day. So although the psalms themselves are the same each day, I experience them differently because the breviary places them in a different context each day. I suppose that, for those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, the antiphons serve a function similar to that of the mysteries when praying the rosary: they provide a setting, a theme, on which to meditate while repeating the familiar prayers.

The antiphons this week have been progressing through the Easter appearances: first the stories of the women at the tomb; then the story of Emmaus; then the story of Thomas. It’s been very helpful in keeping me “in” Easter.

The other thing that’s been repeating this week is the news of yet another killing of an unarmed black person by a police officer. Walter Scott was killed on Holy Saturday. Every day, this story is in the news, on the net. Every day, the same basic facts are repeated, preceded and followed by new pieces of information that come to light, new events unfolding, new commentators opining. How different the police account looks, when placed next to the bystander’s video of the shooting.

This country is in a repeating cycle of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, in eerie similarity to the breviary’s four week cycle: a cycle that is long enough that each repetition strikes us anew, but short enough that each occurrence is familiar. The similarities in the police accounts are eerie. The video evidence proving that Officer Slager’s account of the incident was filled with lies makes the earlier police accounts look different. Feidin Santana, the witness who captured the event on video, was afraid, like the women in the short ending of Mark’s gospel:

Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Those women did eventually testify to the truth, despite their fear, despite the risk, as Mr. Santana has done. Without them, we would not know the truth.

How do we hold those two things together, Easter week and yet another black person killed by police, icons of the glorified body of the risen Christ and photographs of bleeding, dying, black bodies? When I started this post, I didn’t know; I only knew I couldn’t say nothing about Walter Scott’s death. I didn’t know how to hold them together, because his unjust death at the hands of government power is surely more crucifixion than resurrection, more the cross than the empty tomb, more the Pieta than the Apostle to the Apostles, more Good Friday than Easter Sunday.

But that’s the point, isn’t it. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no crucifixion without resurrection. Our faith is in the Crucified-and-Risen One. We have to hold them together.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Christ is Risen.
Truly, He is Risen!
Amen, alleluia.

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Stations of the Cross

So I finally got to Stations of the Cross last night – I’ve been wanting to get to them since I was writing my thesis last year and realized that is was a devotional practice that could foster empathy. As I was on my way over, I realized it was not only the first time I’d been in this parish — it was the first time in.. oh.. at least 20 years, possibly 30. I had only the vaguest recollection of how it goes.

Because of the traffic, I got there just barely on time. I picked up a worship aid on the way in: The Way of the Cross, with text from scripture, copyright 1965, with an introduction explaining how directly it was inspired by the Vatican II teachings encouraging Catholics to engage more broadly with Scripture than we had before.

As I entered the sanctuary, I was dismayed to see both the new projection screens lowered and showing a reproduction of Jesus among the disciples. Oh no!! I thought. Surely they aren’t going to project the stations on the screen while we sit here and watch? We’re supposed to walk the way of the cross!

Fortunately, I was wrong; apparently the picture was projected simply to inspire meditation before we began. (Full disclosure: I loathe the increasingly common practice of using projection screens in liturgy for anything at all. This is largely a personal loathing; I have some idiosyncratic vision issues that make these things problematic for me. Thinking about it more dispassionately, I can see that in theory, this kind of usage has possibilities that open up the world of sacred art in the parish setting. However, if one is going to use it this way, one should configure the machine so that the bar at the bottom of the screen with all the various icons is hidden!)

A moment later, the priest processed in behind a teen boy carrying the processional cross, and a little girl carrying a candle. (The “candle in a jar” sort, that she could hold in both hands.) The priest was vested; the young people were not. We all rose, and began with the sign of the cross. He led us in singing (a capella) the introductory verse that was in our worship aid, to the tune of Stabat Mater, and then led us in the first station, as we stood in our places.

The observance for each station was as follows:
– Priest: Station N, (name of the station).
– Priest: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you,
– All (genuflect): Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
– Priest: reads a passage of scripture that describes, or is relevant to, the events of the station.
– All (kneel): read a passage of scripture from the psalms or prophets, that either points towards Christ’s sufferings or presents an emotional response to them
– All: sing the next verse, that moves us to the next station, while we process to it
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#RaceLetter and Other Resources for Catholics Discussing Racism

Roman Catholic Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL wrote a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States for the World Day of Peace this year. In this letter, he expressed the hope that Catholics across the country would use it as a resource for prayerful reflection on the state of racial relations in our communities, church, and nation.

In early January, some of us got together on Twitter for a discussion of the letter, using the hashtag #RaceLetter. This post presents the discussion questions we used to structure the discussion, and includes a set of resources for further reading and discussion. The conversation itself was storified, so you can read and reflect on the thoughtful responses of a small but varied group of Catholics and non-Catholics to this letter.

If your parish, small group, or group of friends is looking for material with which to reflect on past and present racism in the Catholic church in the US, I hope you will find these materials useful. If you have additional resources or stories to share, please do share them in the comments.
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Learning to Call Myself White

(Cross-posted from BLT)

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. Continue reading

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The Best Option for Intellectual Women

I was very intrigued to learn, some years ago, that during medieval times, the convent was almost certainly the best available option for women who were intellectually gifted or ambitious. Women in religious life were often educated beyond the ordinary education for women. Vowed religious women didn’t only pray; they studied, they wrote, they taught, they composed, and they led, all within a women’s sphere that was other than domestic. While their formal authority was limited to (and even within) that sphere, their informal authority and influence often reached wider, sometimes even into the highest reaches of church or civil government, as with Catherine of Siena’s interventions with the pope, and Teresa of Avila’s correspondence with King Philip II.

So when I read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America, this sentence leapt out at me:

It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s…

Because you know what else was happening in the late 1940s through the early 1960s? First, women were getting fired from jobs across the board: for no reason other than that the war was over, and there were men who “needed” those jobs. Then, the romanticization of what we now think of as the 1950s ideal family, which turned out to be so alienating, isolating, and toxic for many women, as they discovered while sharing their feelings in the early 60s consciousness-raising groups.

So it makes me wonder: did American women enter religious life after WWII for the same reason that medieval women did? Catholic sisters in the US worked — they taught, they nursed, they ran hospitals and schools — and they were educated to do that work.

If you were a Catholic woman who wanted to do something with your life other than be a wife and mother — who felt that God had gifted you with talents that were best used beyond the domestic sphere, but the secular world had no respect for you — then why wouldn’t you choose the bounded-but-abundant opportunities of religious life?

Posted in Catholic, Church history, Feminist theology | Tagged , , | 14 Comments