On Being Blog
Catholics of all sorts have been responding to our call for their stories. They’ve been writing to tell us about their experiences in the Catholic Church — the beauty and the pain and the hope they feel belonging to this vast and ancient tradition. We have been amazed by the depth and feeling with which these people have told us their stories. In an upcoming show in May, you’ll hear for yourself the fruit of these insightful voices.
In the meantime, I am reading a new spiritual memoir about one man’s experience on the path to Catholic priesthood. Andrew Krivak spent nearly a decade of his life training to become a Jesuit priest before leaving the order, marrying, and having children of his own. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life expresses Krivak’s deep love for the years he spent with the Jesuits and offers a window into the complexities of one man’s discernment. Krivak describes difficult issues — especially the challenges of poverty, chastity, and obedience required of all Jesuits — with unblinking honesty. And he gracefully reconciles his deep appreciation for the wisdom of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Ignatius of Loyola with his very modern life. I have been savoring the book.
Pesach (Passover) is upon us. In a recent entry by Rachel Barenblat (a rabbinical student who writes the Velveteen Rabbi blog), she recounts a seder in which three questions were asked and were answered with prescribed responses. A Sephardic custom (according to Barenblat, Iraqi or Afghani in origin), the seder opens with a person circling the table of participants asking:
Who are you? The answer: “I am Yisrael.”
Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”
As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
It’s in this interstitial space that I remember Avivah Zornberg’s retelling and interpretation of a story from a fifth-century Midrash:
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts.
Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities.
Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom.
Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.
From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.
We’ve been asked to redo our staff bios on our About Staff page to make them more, well, human and quirky. Writing your own bio is a very odd experience. You refer to yourself in the third person, possibly like something Napoleon might do. We (and I do mean the royal “we”) hope to get those brushed up over the next few days and up online.
Editor’s note: Our parent organization, American Public Media (APM), is a large and diverse organization. Maria is the manager of software development for the company. She’s a fan of SOF who travels extensively and is planning an introspective journey to myriad spiritual sites around the world. We invited her to contribute to SOF Observed on occasion and reflect as she listens to Krista’s interviews and works with us on upcoming projects.
As SOF staff pore over hundreds of responses to the audience query about Catholic identity and we IT folks try to envision a way to capture that diversity in an online space, I thought about my own relationship with the Catholic Church. How would I answer that query? Has the archdiocese’s cracking down on my small community (The Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul recently issued letters to area parishes forbidding practices such as communal penance as a sacrament and allowing lay people to preach during Mass. My parish, St. Frances Cabrini Church, was among them.) tainted my relationship with the Church? Why do I still show up?
A few weeks ago I returned from gallivanting around that splendid place of my ancestry — Italy. My Italian companions and I toured through Tuscany and quickly came to understand the three essential components of a Tuscan village: hill, wall, church. Just as my pores exude of garlic after some crostini con pancetta, so too does Italy’s rich art, architecture, and traditions of the Catholic Church.
Despite my friends’ vitriolic commentaries about the Church as an institution, it was in the churches that we spent hours — our necks craned back to witness salvation history played out in frescoes dating from the fifteenth century.
In The Spirituality of Parenting, last week’s SOF guest, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, spoke of religion as a container for spiritual experience. What better place, for me, than a church — the physical manifestation of this container — to hearken back to that original experience in one of the best ways we know how: through art.
As we stood together marveling at the vaulted ceilings, Corinthian pillars and walls of light, I’d like to think we shared a similar sentiment: “I’m glad to have shown up.”
Over the past week I have been travelling. I must make a choice about my education, and I have been visiting the schools I am considering attending, asking questions of their students, staff, and faculty.
People who study religion are often full of questions. So at The Divinity School of the University of Chicago someone raised the following: “What resources do you have for frustrated Catholic women?” There turned out to be a bevy of enthusiastic resources: a nun, a professor, three students, and an administrator each spoke up, excited at the chance to start a discussion about the role of women in the Catholic Church. One Episcopal male student shouted, “You should convert!” The nun described a woman who had carved a church leadership position for herself without being ordained. The professor was still searching for an answer herself.
At Harvard Divinity School I spoke with John D. Spalding about his SoMA Review, which he founded in part because he couldn’t find a good platform for his slightly tongue-in-cheek articles on religion, politics, and culture. He is now its editor, and contributors include our own Krista Tippett. Also at Harvard, I visited a class taught by Harvey Cox about religious fundamentalism and politics (you can hear him on our program Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide). I looked for a book by David Ford, director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, in Harvard’s enormous library system; I found it.
All the travelling and talking about the study of religion and writing and ministry has left me tired and excited and thinking about what it means to be literate in religion. Stephen Prothero wrote a book last year called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t. It documents some scary statistics about what we Americans don’t know about the basic tenets of the world’s major religions, and discusses the peril of maintaining such ignorance.
Inspired to the goal of being religiously literate, I am determined to learn more, to become competent in discussing religions in all their deep complexities. Luckily for me, there are thriving communities of people working on this project together. I’ll be joining one come fall, and I can’t wait.
CNN is broadcasting a presidential candidate forum on faith issues this Sunday, April 13, at 8:00pm ET that includes both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (as of this post, John McCain had not accepted the invitation to participate). I hate to admit it, but I think I’m not alone in acknowledging that my attention to this year’s presidential election ebbs and flows as the long months of campaigning continue. But I will tune in this weekend with hopes of hearing a substantive dialogue on ”pressing moral issues that are bridging ideological divides now more than ever, including poverty, global AIDS, climate change and human rights.”