This blog is in response to an interview aired by the radio program On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett, on June 11, 2015. I invite you to listen to the interview before reading this post, and would especially point your attention to the unedited version of the interview. The time stamps I’ve included are from the unedited version. You can download the interview as a podcast to take with you on the go (and get other episodes of the podcast, which I highly recommend!).
Dear Sr. Simone,
I would have loved to be a part of the On Being audience when you spoke with Krista Tippett. Listening to y’alls conversation as I drove through the Texas hill country, I felt called to write to you and engage in the dialogue. Although I humbly realize I am casting this letter out into the sea of the web, I would be thrilled to receive a response from you – and perhaps I’ll get up the gumption to figure out how to email it to you personally.
I’d like to respond to the interview as it naturally happened, as I responded internally to you and Krista Tippett while I drove along listening.
Although I had heard of the Nuns on the Bus and somewhat closely followed you and your sisters when you first came onto the national stage, I didn’t know anything of the Sisters of Social Services. I found the explanation of your call to religious life compelling – that you sought people with the same “why,” and desired to create community (6:00). You seem to live out the inherent connection, which you name, between faith in Jesus and justice. I celebrate with you this organic connection between knowing Christ and working for justice. I also admire your abandon at answering the call of God even when it led beyond convention (when does it not?) – as in becoming a lawyer to represent the unrepresented.
I want to thank you for your words on contemplation. You spoke about a “contemplative stance,” in a way that was easy to grasp – you call it “walking willing.” (18:20) The frequent outbursts of violence across our country are stark, undeniable evidence of the need for contemplative people, people who allow themselves to be in tune, with “willing hearts,” to the hunger around them. And when you spoke about the tiredness that comes only when you “focus on yourself” instead of on walking willing towards others, it especially resonated with me as a woman. I believe in a unique way as women that we have a truly supernatural capacity to give to others when our hearts are focused on God. When we let Him be our strength, and trust that we’ll be “nourished in the process” as you say, we are much stronger, and have so much more to give to others than when we worry about conserving strength for ourselves.
Krista Tippett said she wanted to draw you out as a contemplative rather than a political figure, and she invites you to talk about how your use of the Zen practice works with your Catholic faith. (20:30) You say, “Zen can be used with any content, because Zen is the discipline of meditation,” and then you speak of the experience of a “sense of a sage, inviting you to go deeper.” I couldn’t help but feel that there was a hole there – you never named the Person whom you contemplate – Who is that sage? You go on to say that you experience that “we are one body” – but whose body? Krista gave you an opening to express how you use Zen in harmony with your Christian beliefs, but you did not name Christ, and I was left wondering what you might have been thinking at that moment.
(39:21) I think it is so key that you name this classic American thought that we have to “fix everything.” I’ve experienced that myself – it can be overwhelming to be aware of so much hunger and need in the world, as you say, so that in the end we’re too overwhelmed to do anything with any modicum of presence. And I have found too as you say that finding “your part” and following it is not only all you can do, but exactly all you need to do – all you are called to do. And I sense that you and I both know that “your part” is certainly enough of a challenge to make for a lifetime of work, learning and joyful fruit.
(47:40) You speak of the need to develop a “theology of insecurity” in our country. I believe you named a fundamental fear/desire. I see that we are in a way, as you say, “obsessed with security”, even though as Krista Tippett points out, security “never works out like we want it to,” we still keep striving for the “illusion.” I deeply agree that our culture is wreaking havoc in its desperate search for security. You mention external and political manifestations of this. Do not these external, large scale manifestations come from this same hunger for security acting within the interior life of each individual? I am interested in how you see the internal manifestations of a theology of insecurity in the life of the soul.
There I drew the connection between how you spoke about contemplation and how you spoke of a theology of insecurity. To be a contemplative is to rest in the unknown, the great mystery of the One Who Is. And only in He who created our restless soul can our soul find rest (we hear that phrase so much – yet your idea of a theology of insecurity sheds new light upon it). This contemplative rest in God seems to me like our only chance this side of Heaven of knowing security – and even then it is only security in so far as it is a knowing of our own smallness and insecurity as being wrapped up into the great arms of the One who secures all existence in Himself. He guarantees us nothing of course, and yet we find in contemplation that He is the only security we need. This is how I understand the type of “walking willing” that is “about surrendering” as you describe in that moment you experienced on the train. It is surrendering to God, is it not?
(1:05:22) An audience member asks you, “Over the next 5 years, how do you see the Catholic Church evolving in its role for women?” This is difficult for me to answer, mostly because I find that a person who asks this question in this way often has a different understanding than myself, and its hard to give an answer that satisfies the questioner. I can see you using humor to get “perspective” and help bridge the gap between the questioner’s perception and the reality of the Church. Then you name some new Church appointments in which you find encouragement. My thought for the questioner was this – but do you know how amazing the role of women in the Church is? And has been? I found myself wishing to of hear women being upheld who, recently and throughout history, have had essential and impactful roles in the Church. For example, when Pope Benedict declared of Hildegard of Bingham (for whom we share a fondness) a Doctor of the Church – that was a shining moment for upholding the role of women! As you named the new positions and appointments for women, I thought – are high positions and visible appointments equated with the value of our influence? Is that not a rather external, masculine type of criteria to use when viewing the powerful influence of the feminine? You say “Pope Francis is not going to change the rules,” which gives the impression that what guides men and women’s roles in the Church is a set of arbitrary, external rules, rather than an integral, internal theology of man and woman. Pope Francis spoke of this need for us to develop more profoundly a theology of woman in the Church.
(1:08:10) I do admire how you speak about what Pope Francis is doing with the Church towards peace building, which helps more than a “juridical edict about women.” And I feel compelled to say that if my thoughts seem idealistic or naive, I recognize that I have grown up in a different Church than you, in the sense that I haven’t personally known what you have known in the history of the Church – and I deeply respect what you lived through. Sometimes I heard in your voice an experience I couldn’t identify with, and I think that part of it comes from my having always lived in a Church that was decades post-Vatican II.
(1:09:02) I can identify with your call to be priestly in places where priests can’t go, in that all Christians are called to be a bridge between God and man, and in that in our modern Church, lay people will always have a further reach, so to speak, than clergy. And yet you almost set up the thought for the audience that you wouldn’t want to be ordained because your “freedom” would be “circumscribed” by the role of the priest (parish responsibilities, etc), so that you wouldn’t be able to do what you do because of the external demands, and you don’t want that. It seems there is a confusion here between external roles and the internal nature of things.
Yes, we are all anointed or called, you say “ordained,” for different vocations (marriage, lay, religious, etc), different ways of serving and being in the world. But even as you say you hear “confessions,” I saw how this could have been a moment to uphold the complementation of the genders, rather than holding up what you do as necessarily needing to refer back to a priestly role. I feel like you’re saying you get to do similar things that priests do, but in your own way, on the periphery. I would wonder why you measure your role in relation to men at all? Why measure your vocation with the yardstick of their vocation? Isn’t that like a wife measuring herself with the yardstick of a husband? As a social worker, lawyer and woman I can only imagine the stories you are honored to hear, as you say, but it seems to take away something of your beautiful vocation as a woman when you compare it to how it is/isn’t like a priests’. Isn’t it rather enough, and more whole, to rejoice in the way that you as a woman can receive and care for people? And isn’t it a stronger witness of the complementarity of men and women to say that in those moments when you receive a difficult story and care for a soul, that you understand how to guide that soul towards the fullness of the sacrament of confession with a priest? Then as you bring people in from the periphery where only you can reach, your internal role in mothering that soul is also essential, and in that way compliments your priestly brothers. Then you build each other up and see how you both need each other to have a whole Church, a whole Body of Christ.
(1:10:45) I appreciate how you answer this youth’s question about how she can “do her part.” I especially respect how you don’t give her an answer, but help teach her how to find one. In our standardized, assembly line culture of education, this type of affirmation for youths to discern is so essential. Later when an older adult asks you the question again, (1:20:41) you affirm “inside listening” again. He gives voice to our temptation to ask someone else for an answer! We often need to hear again and again – listen inside, find your own answer! The man’s doubled question made me smile, and you answered him with great spirit – “Figure out what would give your heart joy. Where could you contribute that would give your heart joy?…Finding your niche is about life-giving, and enjoying the life that is given to you and to others in the process.”
You also describe this kind of inner discernment when you say “God gives us the gifts we need before we know we need them.” What a beautiful way to describe how to discern in practical life! As Krista Tippett says, “any of us can undertake that reflection in our daily lives,” even when things aren’t turning out like we thought they would. You say, “What is the gift we’ve been given, that we need to pass on? We can all find that.” I love how you invite us all into this process of “finding our part.” Thank you for that, and in closing, thank you for all of your words. I learned much from listening to you, and also from writing to you. Much peace to you on your journey, Sr. Simone, as you continue to do your part. I’ll be doing my humble best to “walk willingly” towards doing my part, too.
P.S. to Krista Tippett. Sr. Simone says that we can all find our part, and, to you, “You’ve found it.” I want to join her in acknowledging your part, and how grateful I am that you have found it! I deeply admire what you do! I’m sure you don’t just sit around reading books and talking to interesting people all day. There must be much less glamorous and difficult work behind the scenes, as you mention when you interview Fr James Martin. But I truly admire how you “do your part.” You uphold goodness, beauty and human connection and relationship in a world that is in dire need of those very things. Blessings and peace to you as well, and to the endeavor of your project, “On Being.”