Listen to your longing

This morning I was challenged by an inner energy inviting me to “Listen to my longing.” As this invitation settled in my heart, I felt my gut moving toward panic. Where is my longing leading me today? Can I honestly answer this question?

Sitting within the stillness of an overcast morning I recalled once being on a panel and asked: “What is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” One panelist, S. Frances Padberg, SSND, responded: “I learned to read.”

As I “listen to my longing,” her response is echoing in my heart. I had recently read David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini (2014). Exploring the Vatican’s history with Mussolini and seeing anti-Semiticism through the eyes of a historian with access to international archives led me to pray for the church. In Kertzer’s carefully constructed account of the relationship between Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII and Mussolini, I saw a new reality. My intuition is that the monarchical mindset of some Vatican prelates has often found a comforting partnership with dictators.

This insight sends shivers down my spine.

Reaching for hope I prayed for a passage in scripture and opened to John: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32) And I ask myself: “How much truth do I want to know?”

As this stream of consciousness continued it focused my longing.

In reading the well-documented scandals of some in the Catholic church, I feel a longing for transparency and accountability. Will the collaboration to seek truth together ever be encouraged by open dialogue without reprisal? And is this possible with a hierarchical mindset, a worldview of dominance and command rather than a willingness to learn together?

I’m reminded of other women, some unknown to me from history, whose dedication made them risk all to act on evidence drawn from their own experience, to follow Christ, as their inner authority, trusting the sensus fidelium of the People of God.

And I remember one friend who said to me recently, “The church no longer holds my conscience.” In other words, some Catholic women have chosen compassion and to trust their inner authority and experience, rather than follow Church teaching that seems to contradict the Christ they know from Scripture; i.e. persecution of the Jewish community, fostering ideas demeaning women, etc.

Listening to my longing I am reminded of women who tried to break through the anti-Semitism of their times. I recall that in the 13th century, Boniface VIII forbade nuns from talking to Jews. This command was written into a papal bull, and actions taken against it let us know that our kin from 1,000 years ago were trying to change the anti-Semitism recorded in Vatican archives.

Knowing the truth today often comes through archival records. The fear of what women might do, especially dedicated women, is present in archival material. In writing her autobiography, Teresa of Avila had to delete her observation regarding the suspicion of clerics that she experienced. “Since the world’s judges are sons of Adam and all of them men, there is no virtue in women that they do not hold suspect . . . .” Her spiritual advisor felt this was too dangerous to publish. *

An example dealing with women eager for spirituality during the 16th century is found in the writing of Francisco Osuna, a popular spiritual writer. His Spiritual Alphabet had inspired Teresa of Avila. In another book, Francisco de Osuna wrote to husbands:

“Since you see your wife going about visiting many churches, practicing many devotions and pretending to be a saint, lock the door; and if that isn’t sufficient, break her leg if she is young, for she can go to heaven lame from her own house without going around in search of these suspect forms of holiness. It is enough for a woman to hear a sermon and then put it into practice. If she desires more, let a book be read to her while she spins, seated at her husband’s side . . . .” **

Obviously, there are too many examples to mention in this brief article.

However, as we stand at a crossroads, especially with LCWR and the Vatican, I listen to my longing. I hope that the church I love may enter into a dialogue with women that honors the evidence of their/our fidelity, service and collaboration over hundreds of years. I’ve known women who have fostered healthy partnerships with the men of the church and in marriage, and these partnerships have resulted in healing communities and families.

“Listening to my longing” has led me to a place of challenge. Hopefully, future generations will read in church archives from the early 21st century that collaborative models of dialogue between women and men have enlivened the spirit of Christ found in the New Testament. Like Christ’s dialogues with Mary, Martha and Mary Magdalene, we will once again reclaim what was once at the heart of “The Way,” working together to resolve the critical questions of our time.

[Judith Best, SSND, is coordinator of and gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]

* “This was deleted in the first redaction by Fr. Garcia de Toledo, who thought it was too daring for the attitude toward women that was characteristic of the times.” The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila, (1515-1582) Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD,1980, Vol. 2, ch.3, #7, p.50.

** Ibid, p.23.

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