When Doctrine Isn’t Enough: A Former Nun Awakens to the Responsibility of Her Own Spirituality
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
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But I still pretty much think the same thing that I sometimes said to Kathie back when we were being raped. I can’t quite get over it. If there is a God, how could he let this thing happen to us? We didn’t deserve it.
This series from The Wichita Eagle will make you question everything about humanity, family, love, neighbors, forgiveness, God. “Promise Not To Tell” documents the perpetual rape of Kellie and Kathie Henderson by their father and two brothers since they were small children, the grace of a Christian family who rescued them and later baptized the assaulting brother in prison, and the shattered worlds these two women are trying to living into and emerge from. A courageous story we’re obligated to read and remember.
by Trent Gilliss, senior producer
Until religious people understand the spirit of the Word, especially the nature of unconditional love, they are trapped in an ethical prison. In the meantime, people can use Scripture to support any opinion. Why bother? Why not just go directly to what is right?
— Shepherd Hoodwin, in response to Krista’s recent interview with Richard Mouw in “Restoring Political Civility.”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Leaving for a Promised Land, An Ex-Con’s New Life
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Exodus is a story of longing and loneliness, redemption and new horizons. Diana Ortiz, a 45-year-old woman who was incarcerated for 22 years for second-degree murder, tells the story of her conviction, rehabilitation, and the need to show others released from prison the journey can start anew.
A Retrospective Slide Show on Faith and Being
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
If you were able to tune in for last Saturday’s live video stream of a conversation between Krista and HuffPo Religion editor Paul Raushenbush, you might have wondered what all the PRPD attendees were watching to the left of the stage while the audio clips were playing. This audio slide show above pairs an audio collage (tip: expand for maximum effect) of past guests of this program speaking about faith and being with a selection of marquis images for each show’s website from the past seven years. We produced this special subset to give you a picture of what the public radio folks were simultaneously seeing and hearing.
Funny thing is that we had no intention of producing the event this way. We were going to have a static image of Krista and Desmond Tutu layered with some program branding project on a single screen behind Krista and Paul while the audio rolled.
But, like most conference events we don’t manage, plans changed. The venue changed so one screen center-stage became two mega-screens far off both sides of the room to accommodate the width of the space. During rehearsal, as we played the collage, we liked the depth the pairing created by cycling through our content-rich images. We changed course. The off-angle made it impractical to pan and zoom and still see clearly, so I held the shot on the stage.
What’s so great about these events is that audiences continually break open my own design conceptions and presentation ideas about what works together. Not only are they educational moments, this event showed me once again that people orient to strong visual and aural elements naturally. They make the passive active. They want to be engaged as long as you elevate your game and give them something worth looking at. The producer has a responsibility to create an experience. I am that producer.
It’s also a reminder to make the most of my work, that it’s okay to repackage our work for others and proudly display what we’ve created from the past seven years. Because the slide show above is under two minutes, we had to create a subset of the actual images displayed on the big screens. Here’s the extended version of that slide show:
Thanks to my colleague Nancy Rosenbaum for helping produce this video.
LIVE Video: Huffington Post Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush in Conversation with Krista
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
NOTE: At 9:30 a.m. EDT (Saturday, September 25th) the live stream will open; conversation will begin promptly at 9:50 a.m.
If you’re a loyal public radio fan or a reader of the religion section at The Huffington Post, you’re going to enjoy this video stream coming to you live from Denver, Colorado. From the PRPD (Public Radio Program Directors) annual conference, Krista will be speaking with Paul Raushenbush, HuffPo Religion editor and associate dean of religious life at Princeton University.
The emergence of HuffPo Religion is one of many recent signs that religion and spirituality have evolved to occupy a very different place in American culture than they did a decade ago. Krista and Paul will look at the transition from Speaking of Faith to Being through this lens, and share segments from the program including listener-generated stories and interviews with special guests.
Grab a cup of coffee and watch this live conversation with us. We’ll open up the live stream at 9:30 a.m. EDT (7:30 a.m. Mountain), and the conversation will start promptly at 9:50 a.m., lasting about 30-45 minutes.
Faith is nothing else but a right understanding of our being — trusting and allowing things to be; a right understanding that we are in God and God whom we do not see is in us.
Thanks to listener Mark Atma from Bellevue, Wisconsin for this lovely definition of faith from Julian of Norwich.
by Krista Tippett, host
Tai Chi Informs an Understanding of Religion through Form
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"L’art du combat avec son ombre" (photo: Frank Taillandier/Flickr)
Over at The Walrus Blog, David Rusack writes a smart and creative reflection on how his training in a specific martial art form of tai chi (Chen-style chuan) has provided a structure that allows him to see with better-informed eyes the parallels with religious traditions and that “the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.”
"…when I went off to school and began to mix there with people who studied other martial arts, I found myself dealing with just the same problem. Nobody else followed the rules of movement that had been drilled into me as the Right Way of doing things. A student of Crane-style kung fu stood with his feet angled bizarrely inward; a teacher of Wu-style tai chi took unnervingly short steps and struck small, constipated poses, barely making visible the graceful flowing motion that Chen style emphasizes. Plainly, many of the things that had been presented to me as the doctrines of effective martial practice were in fact only specific to my style, were maybe even just part of a graceful-flowy Chen aesthetic that had little to do with usefulness. I fretted over the question of how much of what I had been taught was mere stylistic fluff, and how much was of genuine substance. …As I realized this about my tai chi problem, I could not help but notice it extended to the case of religion as well: why reject all things arbitrary? One cannot really convene in an empty room on a randomly chosen day, declare “Be good to others,” and then depart until some day next week. The contingent pieces of a religion — its symbols, stories, places of significance, and special ceremonies — make up that structure that must be posited, even if arbitrarily, in order for it to be possible to have religious practice at all. This ritual structure allows religious practice to impart moral lessons and create feelings of community and spiritual fulfillment that ultimately stand apart from the factual claims of a particular creed. … Whatever end modern believers intend to reach by continuing religious practice even while perceiving a baselessness to it all, I can now say I see how they might hope to achieve it.”
(Thanks for the heads-up, Shiraz!)