Living and Loving the Questions…

The battle that the women religious are now facing has been brewing for a long time.

First, the reforms of Vatican II never really got off the ground in an institutional sense. It’s hard to reform an institution as old, large, and powerful (read, hierarchical) as the Catholic Church.   After the unveiling of Vatican II in the late sixties, a lot of reforms cropped up.

Notable was the liberation theology movement that emerged in Latin America and other countries.  Prior to this time, the Catholic Church was a dominant power in Mexico as well as Central and South America.  It was hierarchical power. In many places and times it was benevolent, but in times of political discord, this power worked to preserve the status of the church over the well-being of the people it served. Liberation theology gave a preferential option to the poor and served that mission rather than preservation of priestly power.  Remember that during the decades following Vatican II, many Latino countries were involved in revolutionary wars.

In the late 80s and into the 90s, the hierarchy in Rome dismantled the liberation theology movement. The Catholic Church became much more conservative.

Here in the states, Vatican II brought forth other forms of liberation theologies and progressive ways of being church.  But in the past couple of decades, the liberalization of parishes and dioceses has been squashed.  Now the bishops are very conservative and more conservative priests have replaced liberal priests.   Numbers of Catholics have diminished here and in Western Europe, while new growth has taken place in places like Africa and Asia where people are more used to hierarchical ways of being.

Being women, the nuns here in the US have flown under the radar screen.  They have championed social justice issues and have not participated in the pro-life or marriage equality wars. This is their biggest sin, according to the charges against them as promulgated by the Catholic bishops.  They are not staying close to the stated teachings of the church (though they are most certainly staying with the teachings of Jesus).

More than decade ago, I made a retreat at a women’s Catholic monastery. It was here where I first became aware of the issues that were beginning to surface pitting the Vatican against the US nuns.  This monastery had an excellent library that held many progressive theological books. For instance, they had probably the best collection on feminist theology that I’ve ever seen.

On one display table, there was a letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict):  it instructed all libraries to destroy the books of the late priest Anthony DeMello, a beloved retreat leader and author who lived and worked in India (he had an Indian heritage).  He was one who was informed by many faiths, including his native Hinduism.  So on this table at that monastery, behind the letter, was a display of DeMello’s books.  Remember that Cardinal Ratzinger was nicknamed the Pope’s Bulldog.

My point is, the ‘war’ against the nuns is of longer standing than Pope Benedict’s term.  And his very election was a calculated move towards growing conservatism and preserving an old hierarchy in Rome.

The last time I was at the Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, we were discussing this issue at one of our non-silent meals.  Sister Dorothy, an 80-something year old retreatant who used to be on the staff at the Desert House, was passionate about these issues.  We all laughed when she said that her opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger all along was, ‘I smell a rat!’.

I asked Father Tom, a very liberal priest who directs the Desert House, if Rome was ready to write off the United States: his quick response was, Yes.

So the women religious are expendable. Purity of doctrine trumps social justice. I shudder when I think of the numbers of aged nuns who have no assets of their own, though I believe that local parishes will not put them on the streets.

This is a cause that I think we need to pay attention to, not only for its inherent justice issues, but because this is yet another canary in the greater environment of religious institutions in this day and age.  This issue is not just about ‘them’, it’s about us and the changes in the religious landscape as well.


This has been a big week for The Nuns, the women religious of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  Their Leadership Council of the Women Religious met this past week in St. Louis to begin to formulate their response to the critique of their very being by Pope Benedict’s study commission.

Why might we care?  Many of you probably know nuns from the Catholic schools of the fifties and sixties. They were the ones who pushed a narrow and authoritarian religion in the classroom. They were the ones who rapped your knuckles with a ruler when you ‘sinned’. Others may know nuns as being essentially servants to parish priests in the larger parishes. They were mostly invisible. And remember, they were practically faceless in their habits. It was hard to differentiate one from another.  That was part of the deal — they were largely invisible as women.

But what’s happening to the Women Religious is part of the whole religious Reformation that we are now undergoing.

Part I:  Some history, mine and theirs

I have crossed paths with many nuns in my adult life. I have attended several retreat centers, most under Catholic auspices (in Christianity, Catholics have been among the first to define monastic living and practices).  I have had several spiritual directors, some of them nuns (again, Catholics were pioneers in the whole field of spiritual direction, which as mushroomed in the past couple of decades). Several of our Wellspring attendees have taken spiritual direction (a requirement of the program) from a nun.

I have known many nuns through my extensive social service and civil rights work prior to entering ministry. I did not grow up Catholic. I remember a babysitter from my toddlerhood was said to have entered a convent. To me, that was like entering the black hole.  But the first nun I knew as a human being was Sister Bernadine, who was on the Model Cities board in my first ‘real’ job.  Model Cities was a very large social service program that was designed to completely transform blighted neighborhoods. Sr. Bernadine wore one of those habits that covered all but her eyes, nose, and mouth. She didn’t talk much. To me she was a silent icon, not so much a real-live human being. [n.b., this was in the early seventies, shortly after Vatican II began its transformation of the Catholic church).

Then I heard that Sr. Bernadine was leaving the convent. Shortly thereafter, she attended a board meeting and I would never have recognized her. She was a beautiful young woman who, it turned out, had a sparkling personality and wicked sense of humor. She became a friend, though we never talked about her life in the convent.

Fast forward to my seminary years in the late 80s:  I took a couple of courses from Rosemary Radford Reuther, not a nun but a famous Catholic feminist theologian on the faculty of a Methodist seminary in Chicago. She explained what was happening in the Catholic church in the US thusly:  since the fifties and early sixties, the priesthood and the convents attracted fewer people.  This changed the dynamics of Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, and other institutions. The nuns — no longer exclusively teachers or nurses at Catholic schools and hospitals, nor handmaidens to priests — were taking this Vatican II thing seriously.

Yes, many like Sister Bernadine left. But many convents re-visioned their mission and began to engage in the work of the communities in which they served. Most religious orders had missions to serve the poor.  So these women religious (as they prefer to call themselves) invested in education that they could use to further their mission.

A great example is Mt. St. Benedict in Erie, PA, a large monastery that not only serves as a retreat center but more importantly as a provider of many vibrant services to the poor in Erie.  They also serve as a base for Catholic peace organizations such as Pax Christi.  This is the home of Sr. Joan Chittister, a world-famous Catholic theologian and progressive thinker. She is awesome.

Priests, on the other hand, were pressed into service in the parishes as available priests dwindled.  As Reuther stated, “So the nuns were getting doctorates, while the priests were graduated from St. Mary of the Lake”.   Meaning, the women were more highly educated than the men.  In the male-dominated hierarchy of the Catholic church, this was bound to cause repercussions.

These repercussions are now being felt.

Stay tuned for Part II, my analysis of what’s going on.





A Ramadan Update

I blogged about my observance of Ramadan this year, the first I’ve done since a disastrous experience (health-wise) in 2001 post- 9/11.

I am observing the spirit of Ramadan: I cannot fast and go without water for the long days of summer without impacting my active days, not to mention my sleep, which would further impact my health. So I’m committing to the principles of Ramadan, which means increased spiritual practice, self-discipline, self-restraint, and more charity.

My food intake centers on whole foods at mealtimes. My spiritual practice includes daily readings from Rumi, the 13th century Islamic mystic, after a time of silence (a form of meditation that I practice), and writing.  I am also more intentional in my prayer time, giving thanks and praying for those who are suffering, including those in Syria and other war-torn countries.

A few days after I began, I traveled to my mother’s retirement facility, Grace Ridge, in Morganton, North Carolina.  Travel always disrupts my schedule. It’s over 800 miles to my mother’s, which I do over two days, so a total of 4 days of driving. Once there, I’ve been doing some rather intensive care giving.

Overall I’ve done ok, despite the fact that I get my Rumi readings online, and the wifi connection at Grace Ridge was very spotty this time around. So my spiritual practice did include meditation and usually writing, but not Rumi every day. I have since caught up, but that wasn’t quite the spirit I wanted to achieve.

I brought a lot of my own food, as Grace Ridge isn’t really known for its whole foods. It’s institutional food, processed and (usually) overcooked.  But I did eat there to join some friends of my mother’s for dinner a couple of times. And a couple of times I ate road food traveling back and forth.

On the way down, I ate my fruit and nuts while I was driving, again not exactly in the spirit of things, since I was basically grazing rather than observing intentional meals.  It was mindless, and I caught myself after the fact. It’s always a learning experience to catch oneself in the midst of mindlessness.  I am reminded of Rumi’s song, which we sing in our congregation fairly often:

                     Come, Come, whoever you are,

                      Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

                       Ours is no caravan of despair, 

   Come, yet again come.

 There’s a line that our hymnal leaves out, a sostenuto line that repeats, though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times…
So yes, I’ve broken my vows.  But today is a new day. Today I can renew my vows and do better.

Ramadan 2012

Eleven years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the hatred displayed towards Middle Eastern practitioners of Islam, I observed Ramadan.  I wanted to show solidarity with the followers of Islam at that trying time. That year, Ramadan began in early November at the time of the new moon and ended at the next new moon in December.

As most of you know, Ramadan fasting means no food (or even liquid) from the earliest light of morning to the last light of the evening. So that year, I needed to be finished with breakfast by around 5:30 AM at the beginning of Ramadan, and with dinner by 4:30 PM by the end of Ramadan.

At that time, I lived in a rather small town and, though I knew some Muslims who taught at the university, I was not in community with them. I did this on my own.

I did not do well with a month of fasting. November and early December are busy times for a minister, and these post 9/11 months were highly stressful as well. I had to get up earlier to finish breakfast before first light and evening duties meant that I didn’t get to bed any earlier to compensate.  But more important, Muslims have rituals and community to help shape the Ramadan experience. I did not have any of these supports. My body was so run down that I was sick much of December and January as a result.

And so: this year I feel a call to join in spirit with my Islamic brothers and sisters once again.  The ongoing struggle of Muslims in Syria, Egypt, elsewhere in the Middle East and the world, weighs on my heart. My sabbatical has given me a deeper gift of spiritual oneness with a variety of religious expressions.  And I have found a vehicle with which to structure a Ramadan experience that will give me support, though I will not be observing Ramadan in the usual way.

This Ramadan, the days are much longer. The first meal must be finished before 4 AM at the beginning, with the last meal beginning after 9 PM.  Realistically, this is not doable for me.  So I will re-define the concept of what my fast will be.  I will eat 2, max 3, meals per day of whole foods with no sugars, gluten grains, or alcohol.  No snacking. I will observe the Ramadan disciplines of self-restraint and sacrifice, which is the point of fasting.

My spiritual practice will, in addition to my meditation and journaling, include daily reading of the 13th century Islamic mystic, Rumi, thanks to the online community through Spirituality and Practice – a great resource any time of year.  Prayers are important in Islam, so I will give prayerful thanks for each of my meals.  Charity is important during Ramadan, so I will give more to a charity of my choice.

This is a much more doable way for me, a Unitarian Universalist, to observe Ramadan, to reflect on the grave issues facing so many Muslims around the globe. I look forward to this being a spiritual time. And when it is finished around August 18th, it will be time to look towards the annual spiritual discipline of the Jewish Days of Awe.


My mother fell and broke her humerus bone near her shoulder, dislocating it in the process.  Other issues have emerged from this break.

A broken arm does not sound all that bad, but at the age of 92, it’s a different animal. She was discharged from the hospital to the assisted living wing of the retirement center where she has lived in an independent apartment for a decade now.  So last week I became her chief caregiver so that my brother and sister in law could get away for a few days.

Let me first rant about how the War On Drugs affects a lot of innocent people:  there are huge numbers of restrictions and laws and regulations around narcotics (e.g., pain meds).  When I did a year’s hospital chaplaincy, there were plenty of restrictions on the dispensing of narcotic drugs.  In the past decade, numbers of people who are addicted to pain meds has skyrocketed.  And the regulations get more severe.

Because of the location of her break, she cannot have a cast, and surgery in her case was ruled out.  Of course she is in a lot of pain.  And then she developed a hematoma at her elbow. This may well be even more painful than her shoulder.

Despite her pain med prescription, she was in severe pain a lot of the time. Plus the nurses were concerned about the hematoma, so we went to the doctor’s office mid-week (a big production in itself).  The large waiting room was full, the doctor was away, and the Physician’s Assistant took care of business.  He changed her pain meds to a stronger prescription.

When we returned to Grace Ridge, we were told that her prescription would be in around 6:30 PM.  By early evening, my mother was in tremendous pain. She went to bed, I went upstairs to her apartment. Then next morning, she was in very bad shape. No pain meds.

Here’s what happened:  no narcotic prescription can be filled without a hard copy of the actual doctor’s prescription. Somehow that didn’t happen. And Grace Ridge was required to send back her old pain meds.  The nursing staff had dutifully packed them up for the daily shipment of prescription drugs, and the replacement drugs were not in the shipment (but the old ones left anyway).  And the nurses do not have access to narcotic drugs that are kept under several levels of security.

So that next day they had to call 2 doctors to get permission  (in writing) to give her even one pill before hers arrived in the next 6:30 PM shipment.

And all those addicts are still able to find their pain meds.  Who’s being hurt by all of these regs?

And now to the current state of our so-called health care system:  since 1997, Medicare has cut back periodically on the rates they pay hospitals for health care. Hospitals have had to find ways to re-staff, using fewer RN’s and relying more upon lower-level staff.   As the cutbacks continued, staffing levels decreased. This was painfully evident 10 years ago, even more so now.

My mother can’t do anything on her own. She cannot go from bed to bathroom unassisted. She cannot dress herself, or clean herself.  Unless her food is pre-cut for her, she cannot eat by herself.

She has a call button. But in assisted living, the staff is stretched pretty thin, and there are long waits, particularly if there’s an emergency somewhere else.  She can only be given one bath per week (‘whether she needs it or not’, her dearly departed brothers would say). That’s where my brother, sister in law, and I come in.  Her life would be miserable without our being there.

This is not the fault of Grace Ridge—their staff is so very caring and kind.  This is your health care system at work. It doesn’t work, and it’s costing a fortune to maintain at even this unacceptable level.  It’s heartbreaking.

I will need to return to spell my brother and sister in law.  I love my Mom and I’m happy to do what I can. But we all have a long way to go to have a sensible health care system.

End of rant!

Saguaro Tales

I love the saguaro cacti.  They are majestic sentinels of this part of the Sonoran Desert, but at the same time, their outstretched arms seem to welcome all comers in a warm (though prickly) embrace.  The different shapes and configurations of the saguaro make me smile as I walk through the desert.

This old saguaro cactus, pictured below, is not 10 feet from my front door here at the Desert House.  It is teeming with life! So much wildlife abounds, in and out of the holes and climbing up its trunk. I can watch this activity all day.  Small chipmunk-like critters run up and down.  Different birds enter the many holes pecked out over the years. I’ve seen 3 different species of woodpeckers, different kinds of songbirds, mourning doves, wrens, finches, and other birds I can’t name enter and exit these many windows.  Yesterday I watched a woodpecker fly out of a hole with a huge black bug in its beak.  Oh, and it’s very noisy with all those critters in, on, and around it.

old saguaro outside my hermitage (with storm approaching). Notice the holes.

The inside structure is woody, and I’m told that a gel-like substance lies between the wooden spines of the saguaro.  This gel is what many of the birds are after. And shelter from the heat.  Along the desert trails, one can see saguaro in various stages of death and dying. It must take them a very long time to fully decompose. I’m talking a century anyhow. They can live over 150 years.  The one outside my hermitage looks like it is beginning to die.

A decomposing saguaro. I think this one looks like a Native American totem.

I happen to be here during the couple week’s window for saguaro fruit.  The ripening of the fruit usually precedes monsoon season, and many birds fly atop a saguaro to eat the seeds, the ruby flesh and drink the juice.  The Native Americans in these parts, the Tohono O’odham, have long found the fruit, seeds, and juice to be a delicacy at a time when the heat is strong and fruit is hard to find in the desert environment. They have many rituals and ceremonies during these couple of weeks.

Saguaro fruit: this one is a bit past its ‘use by’ date

I am told that the fruit has a high nutritional profile with protein, fats, and carbs, also a high phytonutrient profile.

There’s a story about a priest who spent time among the Tohono O’odham. He went away during the saguaro fruit season. When he returned, he didn’t recognize a lot of the people – They were all fat, he said.

So during my hiking adventures, I had to see for myself. Since the saguaro can grow so tall, and the fruit grows at the end of the arms of the cactus, there were precious few I could knock down, even with my hiking stick. So I mostly had to resort to what was left on the ground, though much of that was picked over by the birds and other critters.

Saguaro bearing fruit

The seeds hold the highest of the nutrient composition, they are really good, and the flesh and juice are good too.  Who knows when the next time might be that I would be in the Sonoran Desert at this particular time, but it was good while it lasted.

And if I look fatter to you when I return, now you know why.



On Sunday afternoon, Melissa MacKinnon and I took the shuttle to Tucson, where she is visiting family and I am returning for a brief retreat at the Desert House of Prayer, where I spent a glorious month on my sabbatical.

It’s the beginning of monsoon season here.  A half hour after I arrived, we had a brief thunderstorm. It was over by the time to go to the chapel in the late afternoon.  The next day we had a dust storm, and yesterday a very healthy rain and thunderstorm that lasted for quite some time.  Rain is celebrated here in the desert. By this time, it is much needed. The downside? It is much more humid than it was in Phoenix and the temps are still high, in the 100s.

On Monday morning I hiked after breakfast, which follows meditation, morning prayers, and Eucharist.  So I got off at 8:30, which was much too late.  The sun was very hot. I had plenty of water, but I was uncomfortable for most of the 3-mile hike. The desert is still beautiful and I enjoyed the experience anyway.

Yesterday I skipped meditation and prayers and took off hiking around 5:30 AM. The sun had already risen and, though not as hot at that time as it was the previous day when I set out, it was hot.  I returned around 8:30 and hiked only 5 miles in that time. My body wants to conserve what it can, so my hiking is slower than my usual turtle pace.  I hiked one of my favorite hikes, so it was exciting and wonderful.

Prickly pear cactus in the morning sun

I love this place. I love the ambiance here, the people – guests and staff, the beauty, the deep hospitality that invites one into a spiritual journey.

Tuesday is Fr. Tom’s day off. Late in the day, Fr. Ricardo comes in from town to preside over the Eucharist and to guide a discussion after dinner. He is deeply committed to border and immigrant justice issues. He is the manager of a health clinic for immigrants and always busy with his justice work.

As he was presiding over the Eucharist in the chapel yesterday afternoon during the thunderstorm, the rain let up a bit.  Behind him is a very large window that looks out over a desert landscape. As he held up the bread and the chalice of wine, a bobcat meandered around the landscape, stopped for a moment, seemed to look in at us, then majestically strode away. Some of us who noticed this looked at each other with eyes widened in amazement. It was one of those unforgettable magical moments. Fr. Ricardo didn’t know it until we told him afterwards.

Today is my last full day here, I return to Schenectady tomorrow. This is sacred space and a gift for my spirit.  I’m so glad to be back here.

I will post more about this experience.

The storm ends as darkness falls