Climbing Down

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to guides and mentors who are both supportive and challenging. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

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The Feminist Question

It was bound to come sooner or later. After my last post, where I speak heart-wrenchingly about Rome’s approach to the discussion of women, a friend queried in a private message: why are you hesitant to identify with the term feminist?

According to Webster’s dictionary, feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” I would add to that “as well as equal dignity and responsibilities.” Certainly, if the definition would end there, and if we all agree on what feminism is and is not, then no doubt I am a feminist, and a very committed one at that.

However, feminism didn’t invent the “equality for all” vision. I see the dictionary definition of feminism as integral to the witness and teaching of Jesus. If I am a feminist, it has found its inspiration and motivation in the person of Jesus long before I knew feminist theory and praxis. My feminism thus arises from my Christian discipleship and is guided by the same.

Now I already hear another question, a puzzlement, an objection. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that various institutional expressions have scandalously contradicted Jesus’ teaching and his vision for a discipleship of equals, thus betraying the very One God sent to save us from the blindness and patriarchal madness that caused such a deplorable track record in the first place!  Most likely the Church’s failure to fully live Jesus’ radical message of equality and inclusion has contributed to the need for the feminist movement.

What I find fascinating, though, is that this flagrant betrayal of God’s messenger has in no way negated the soul-power and guiding potential of Jesus himself. What amazes me is that the heart and soul of this compromised Body of Christ, the Church, still pulsates with the potent memory of God’s own revolutionary dream of love and mercy, justice and equality for all, a dream as relevant and as sorely needed in our suffering world as ever before. What amazes me is that this radical love and JesusFeminist4bmercy still have the power today to overthrow notions of superiority, of hierarchy, of status and religious arrogance, even in the hallowed halls of the ecclesial patriarchal edifice, keeping religious careerists off balance and the institution on edge. That is why I think Pope Francis is a God-send — just in time. That is why the Church in every time and place must continually re-examine itself in order to re-align its teachings and practice with the Gospel message — Ecclesia semper reformanda est. While still needing much conversion on women’s issues I nevertheless see Pope Francis working hard to restore the vibrant soul-power of Jesus and the radical compassion of the Christian message. So I’m willing to cut him some slack on the “woman-question.”

The sad part though is that because of the institutional compromising of Jesus’ message, many feminists have given up on Christianity as a possible ally in their quest, thus throwing out the Jesus-baby with the smelly church bathwater. While I regret yet fully understand this abandonment, it is the revolutionary witness of Jesus that keeps me in the Church. It is his wild energy that keeps feeding my hope and my active contribution in my small corner of the planet to bringing about God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy for all.

Having said all this, I still prefer to be known as a Christian “tout court” (as the French say) rather than a feminist. I salute the quest for women’s equality and dignity, condemning with feminism every form of violence and abuse against women.  I salute the feminist connections between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the planet. I thus recognize feminism as in sync with the Biblical witness to the equality, mutuality and dignity of “male and female” as well as the beauty and integrity of creation. But modern usage of the term feminism itself has acquired a lot of politically charged overtones, to the point that multiple definitions now seem to operate. Using the term today tends to communicate a package of ideological goals, some of which feel compromising to my Christian commitment. Included in these are abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family life, family planning (why feminists swallowed the artificial hormones so readily instead of insisting on attacking the “fertility problem” where it belongs — with men, fertile always and everywhere — beats me), euthanasia (not sure about this last one). While open to greater understanding, I tend to lean towards more traditional points of view, still uncertain which way is truly forward. Time and thoughtful discernment (almost impossible in heated political debates) will tell which direction for each of these thorny and complex questions points to greater flourishing of humanity and all of creation.Feminism1

Precisely because the term feminism encompasses many different things today, the designation can be used in both affirming and constructive ways as well as judgmental, dismissive and disparaging ways, depending which group of people employs and interprets it. Frequently I find myself understanding more than one side of contentious issues while I see advocates on either side of a political divide turning a blind eye to opposing viewpoints in order to bolster their own or, worse, vilify those who disagree. In our zeal to be right, one-sided and simplistic arguments, dishonesty and misrepresentation, even in sophisticated and inconspicuous forms, creep in all too easily. In the end, however, these cannot stand in the light of day, no matter which side of a complex reality we come down on, and can even risk discrediting our argumentation . When it comes to tactics and errors, zeal for a cause can in fact turn us into an unflattering mirror image of our opponent, thereby running the risk of discrediting our own argument. A good dose of charity, respect and humility would greatly benefit advocates on both sides of today’s complex realities.

I would see such temptations as a manifestation of “original sin,” that subtle yet so present “objective disorder” to which we are all prone, esp. when zeal for a noble cause takes hold of us and we dismiss the need for self-criticism and humility: “Feminism without spirituality runs the risk of becoming what it rejects: an elitist ideology, arrogant, superficial and separatist, closed to everything but itself. Without a spiritual base that obligates it beyond itself, calls it out of itself for the sake of others, a pedagogical feminism turned in on itself can become just one more intellectual ghetto that the world doesn’t notice and doesn’t need.” ~ Joan D. Chittister, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

My liberation as a woman is grounded in the Gospel call to fullness of life: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The witness and teaching of Jesus provides everything I need to guide my growth as a woman and to inspire me to do my little part in making the world a better place where it is easier for more people to be good, fulfilled and joyful; I see no need for additional labels. Meanwhile the door between my Christian spirituality and feminism is wide open, facilitating an ongoing process of critical reflection, evaluation and appropriation of the two. Most importantly in this process, however, is that my relationship with Jesus informs and sheds discerning light on my feminism, not the other way around. As a good feminist, I claim my experience and my voice as legitimate. As a good Christian, I seek the face of Christ in all women and men of good will, expecting the Holy Spirit to bring gifts through the “otherness” of all my sisters and brothers.

http://www.prairie-encounters.ca

For further reading:
An interesting article appeared recently over at America Magazine: Feminist Case Against Abortion
Related site:  Feminists For Life

Radical, Gospel-inspired simple living is still embodied today by many courageous Christians: l’Arche founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker founded by Dorothy Day, and the Simple Way lead by Shane Claiborne — also see Red Letter Christians.

“We must each make a decision for ourselves on what works for our own lives.  Many will choose to leave behind the pain and rejection endured as a result of simply being a woman in religion that is embedded with structures that do not value women’s voices.  And, many will choose to stay and wade through the ongoing misogynistic practices in search for the nooks and crannies where one can find solace.  Both are feminist choices and every action contributes toward the ultimate objective of eradicating sexism and all oppression wherever they exist – including religion.” Thus says Catholic Gina Messina-Dysert in her TED-Talk on Feminism and Religion.

“If you feel deeply enough, you stay; not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it. You’re struggling for the soul of something.” Thus says Elizabeth Johnson, one of my heroes in Catholic feminist discourse; several of her books grace my shelves. Here is a great article about her: Feminism in Faith

“Faith, religion, spirituality, cannot be subjected to sexist and misogynistic structures requiring women to renounce their freedom, their intelligence, their sexuality and capabilities to be part of them.” Words by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a medical doctor, theologian and Benedictine nun living at Montserrat, Spain, who has published a new book entitled The History of Feminist Theology. A short yet insightful interview with her can be found here.

Since I make reference to male fertility, I guess I should at least find a place where you can learn more about male contraceptive research —  click here.

There is a growing feminist movement in circles of Evangelical Christianity. Here is a recently launched initiative called The Junia Project with lots of solid reading in very accessible language.

Sarah Bessey wrote a great blog post on her integration of Christian discipleship and feminism.  Sarah’s words grace the image at the top of this blog post. She has also written a very engaging book with the title “Jesus Feminist.” Her words are a fitting ending to this challenging reflection:

Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. God’s Kingdom tastes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. My life should still bear the fruit of the Spirit out. ~ Sarah Bessey

If we want to live counter-culturally as disciples, we have to live our lives and seek mercy and do justice counter-culturally as well. It’s tempting to want to employ the same tactics and arguments or methods that have been used on us or others but that is a temptation we must resist.  I don’t believe that silencing and shaming and other tactics of the world will really bring about God’s redemptive movement for women. We are to be gentle as doves and cunning as serpents. ~ Sarah Bessey

God is light, there is no darkness in him, so when we participate in the life of Christ now, we are marked as the bringers of light. The Apostle John wrote, “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ~ Sarah Bessey

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