CREDO: Personal Testimony of Faith

This is a crossover point in time, very similar to that Galileo moment in history when he changed our conception of the world. Galileo was condemned because his science was in contradiction to the established theology. Science up to that time affirmed what they thought they knew, but it now contradicted what they were sure they knew. We are right back at that moment in time again, only now we call it evolution. Talk of Big Bangs and a hundred thousand universes turns everything you have learned upside down–but does it attack faith? I argue that I have got to the point in studying this science very carefully where I am at a marvelous spiritual moment, in which evolution is in a sense my spiritual director. God, to me, is no longer an old man on a cloud with a stopwatch. All of those old images of God–the Gotcha God who says “I made you, you tripped, gotcha, it’s over,” or the God that will make the red light turn green before I get to the corner–are sweet myths, some of them even terrifying. But what science gives me now is this picture of the God of Life that has welcomed us into that life as co-creators. “Here’s your world,” he is saying, “No, I haven’t answered everything. No, I haven’t solved everything. I have given it to you and I want you to make of it the best you can and I will be with you as you go.”

All of a sudden everything that real theologians and mystics have taught us above those childhood myths becomes startlingly real to me. God is Emmanuel. God is God-with-us. When Moses asks, “Who are you?” the answer doesn’t come just “I AM Who Am.” If you know Hebrew, you go all the way down to the last line: “I am with you.” I believe now in this God who companions us as–like all of evolution–we stumble, we fall, we get up, we go on. Failure is built into the process. There is nothing to be afraid of. We are working our way to our best selves and God is with us as we do it. Hierarchy is not built into that process. All of life is of the same elements–popes, paupers, potentates, police–we are all there, working, failing, getting up. This awareness of God has given me a whole new sense of the fire and the light in scripture and in life.

My father died when I was three, leaving my mother a widow at twenty-one. It was a very difficult time, at the end of the Depression. My mother re-married a wonderful Presbyterian man, Dutch Chittister, who had never set foot in a church but taught me great spiritual values, especially that of truth. He had character, integrity and strength. I was therefore an ecumenist before it was a word, let alone a virtue. We moved to Erie after the war; to a very small apartment in a very poor area, but I treasure that experience. I learned about humanity and suffering. We were forgotten but a strong community.

My father was totally against a Catholic education for me, but my mother insisted. I loved school at first with the Sisters of St Joseph, and later with the Benedictines. I wanted to be a nun from the age of three, when the sisters came to give Daddy’s soul to the angels, who would then give it to God. I didn’t have a model Catholic family background but, ironically, the mixed marriage broadened my sense of faith. It gave me a perspective of the world where diversity came in different people and different ways. I couldn’t understand how the same God could condemn my Protestant grandmother and save my Catholic grandmother, so at the age of eight I chose to believe that somebody was wrong. Later, as I delved into history and saw the politicization of religion in the worst possible persecutional way, I knew there was enough wrong to go around.

I began to pay attention to the God of Scripture–the God who saved, who cared, who sent forth Jonah to convert a people he didn’t like. Jonah was sent to Nineveh but instead went in the opposite direction, until he was thrown overboard, swallowed by the whale and eventually disgorged on the shore he was intended for. And then we have that beautiful sentence when the Lord says, “Jonah, do you not know me after all this time? I am mercy upon mercy upon mercy.” These stories, and the Jesus story, shaped me and I just let the Gotcha God and all those other images fall away like scales from my eyes. Then, when evolution burst on the scene, God-with-us became my God.

I originally intended to join the wonderful Sisters of St. Joseph, but when I went to high school and heard the Benedictines chanting their office, I just knew I would join them. I did so on my sixteenth birthday, despite their reluctance to accept an only child because mother would need me in later life. My mother insisted that she didn’t want my life affected by hers, so I entered and began a formation that was totally liturgical, totally prayer and scripture-oriented. My father’s reaction was terrible. It took him years to adjust. My parents visited the monastery once a month and he would sit for hours in the car waiting for my mother. The, gradually, because the nuns refused to resist and ignore him, his heart turned and he eventually fell in love with them.

Within six weeks of entering, I contracted polio and spent four years in wheelchairs, iron lungs and braces, learning to walk again. I insisted on doing the same work everyone else did. The nuns never gave up on me and did the exercises with me every day until the nerves began to regenerate and I became functional again. In those days there was a theology of suffering–God wanted this for you for some reason. It had a place then but I don’t believe in it now. I would say now that that was life, and life is what we go through to become the best living being we can be. For me also at that time my spiritual life was greatly developed, steeped as a Benedictine in scriptures and lectio, but also through reading the writings of the mystics. I blossomed in the whole spiritual tradition that enfolded me.

And yet, ten years later I wanted to leave the order! It was the 1960s, a period of great change. Within religious communities, prayer-life, habits and rules were changing. I am not an intuitive person, I need to study everything. Was I leaving religious life or was it leaving me? The more questions I asked, the more I realized that this way of life had a quality that no amount of schedules, rules or uniforms could prove. So I stayed, but I was glad that I had tested the idea of leaving in my own mind.

The monastery is a community which becomes your family. Benedictines keep a common table and live a common prayer life. We believe strongly that the function of our community is to be a stable presence in an area, a place where people come for refreshment and support. Hospitality is a major part of our life and there is never a penny charged. That is why writers like Hemingway, Greene, Alan Paton, Steinbeck–those who exposed the plight of the poor–had a great effect on me. I have long since left the realm of catechesis and Canon Law and I walked instead the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Then this God of Evolution comes in, gives you the components of life in your world and says, “Shape them, Fix them!”

I do not believe God makes people poor: we make people poor; our economic systems make people poor; our lack of Christian development makes people poor. I feel a great obligation to be part of the creative process, somehow or other. I am not saying everyone should work in a soup kitchen. I haven’t served two cups of soup in my life, but my role as teacher, advocate, minister, enables the soup kitchen to exist, doors to be opened, people to be found. Poverty dispirited me for years. I thought of the years when I could have been sitting in a chapel or at a lakeside contemplating God in the sunset. I thought of the life values–security, progress, achievement–that I never gave myself to, until I suddenly realized that that wasn’t where the fullness of faith life was for me. This God of Evolution was saying this world is yours to shape and create. That’s why we are here, all of us.

Benedictines take a vow of stability. We live and die in the same monastery. We don’t come in pyramids, with one superior at the top and little houses dotted all over the world where you can move around. We live rather in circles, so that the community you are in is the family that is your responsibility. We believe in stability of place, staying committed to the people of this place all your life. Our monastery is in Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie is one of the five Great lakes. Thirty years ago it was “dead” due to pollution. What happens to Lake Erie happens to my community, therefore it is my responsibility to the people of Erie to do what I can do to preserve that lake. So the Benedictines and four other groups sued the State over the pollution and won. That is a very clear manifestation of our vow of stability. We rise and fall with the character and circumstances of the place where we live. The people rub edges off you. You become a different person because of the people to whom you are committed.

As Benedictines we pray chorally three times a day with two separate lectio periods. It never changes. Even away from the community as I am now, I read from the breviary and so I am in rhythm with my community. Saint Benedict tells us very clearly to keep prayer brief, because the communal aspects of prayer are intended to oil and maintain private prayer, and that is where the contemplative dimension of Benedictine life comes in.

Since 1952 that prayerful life has been dripping into my soul like the Chinese water trick day after day, aloud and then in private reflection. For me a contemplative is a person who sees the world through the eyes of God, and when that has a scriptural basis it is clearly a desire to be immersed in the mind of God. It’s not a matter of saying rosaries or visiting the Blessed Sacrament. In that immersion process you don’t say a prayer, you become a prayer. In one of my books I describe prayer as “the breath of the soul,” simply because when your prayer is so substantial and so constant, it becomes part of the atmosphere around you, the lungs of your soul, as it were. Prayer in my life is now bigger than ever, clearer than ever and more constant and more important than ever.

Most of my faith mentors are the older sisters in our community; (they are) profoundly holy kind of women for whom prayer was clearly the foundation on which their lives stood. I talk to them and they quote scripture at me because it is for them a perfectly normal part of the conversation. It is the grist of their lives. In the rule of Benedict there are scriptural references in every chapter–if you believe this, then you will do that. Other great mentors were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, particularly the latter. I learned from them what the exigencies of scripture were, what their attitudes towards events were and why. I have always talked about melting into the mind of God because years ago I put down all definitions other than God as “life.” That probably came as a result of reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the 1060s; he didn’t know what the afterlife was like but he talked of the stream of life.

I have great faith that life goes on in another form, but if no, it doesn’t bother me. The God life has been here with me all my life. Someone has said, “If there is a God there is nothing to worry about and if there isn’t a God there is nothing to worry about.” If this is the fullness, then that has been a great consciousness of the divine. I don’t’ believe it is the fullness. When I was a little girl we were always told that at the end of time, life will return. Then the scientists tell us that in maybe four or five billion years everything will melt into one stream of life. For me, at the end of time, we will all know God and life differently. I have no time for fancy images of heaven or of some sort of children’s paradise. I believe that life will come to wholeness in the God who is life and that is enough for me. I see “life” as the birth canal to the fullness of that life. I have a great feeling of God-with-us and I am not afraid.

Oh to have seen him walk with those women disciples, to realize the equality of all that! The image of woman that the church gives me is not the image I get from Jesus. We have had two thousand years of patriarchal plutocracy and I just know that was not the will of Jesus for women. We were not created “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” so that God could tease us by being useless. We need to have a discussion on what it means for a woman to also be a minister, a carrier of the Holy Spirit, a purveyor of wisdom, a means and an instrument of grace. We are gradually building a critical consciousness. In thirty or forty years’ time this conversation wont’ be a trouble to anyone; it will simply be the essence of thought in the western world.

When I look at the Church I find an institution that does not look to me like what Jesus meant in the gospels. For years that was disappointing to me to the point of disillusionment, but I am way beyond that now. I really believe that every day the Jesus story gets brighter and the institution gets dimmer. I believe what I was taught–that the Jesus who raised the dead, cured lepers and said, “Go and do likewise,” meant it. How can you be a Christian and do otherwise?

– from CREDO: Personal Testimonies of Faith, compiled and edited by John Quinn (Veritas, Dublin 2014)