April 2, 2016

A Kinship Spanning the Ages

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Carol M. Perry, SU, is the author of Waiting for Our Souls to Catch Up, one of AARP’s best books of 2014.” Her new book, Among Women: Lives of Challenge, Courage and Faith in Biblical Times, tells the stories of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the powerful and the powerless, the married and the widowed, and the saintly and the sinful women who appear in the pages of the Bible. As Sister Carol explains, they are from another world and from very different times, but they share our human condition.

Asahina & Wallace: A Daily News story from 2001 noted that you would be talking about “wonder women of the Bible” in your classes at Marble Collegiate Church. What led you to that topic, and how long have you been thinking about it?

Sister Carol Perry: I have been asking questions of the biblical text about women ever since the Women’s Movement of the ’60s began. I went to the Bible looking to learn where the scripture stood in relation to the roles of women, and I made discoveries about the amazing women hidden in those pages. Through book after book of God’s word I have continued this search and I continue to be amazed.

A&W: The women you write about lived in a very different time and in very different circumstances from ours. Why should modern readers care about them?

CP: None of us stands alone. I always recall the great stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral, which depicts the four evangelists standing on the shoulders of the four great prophets of the Old Testament. We all stand on those who have gone before us, since we are the heirs of history. We have to care about these women of the Bible because they are our ancestors, just as the women of the American revolution were, or the women who never ceased advocating for suffrage until they got it. We have to care about their decisions and their struggles, since we have inherited the results. Didn’t a wise person say, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it”?

A&W: Some of the women you write about are well known, while others are obscure, even unnamed. How did you choose their stories?

CP: Choosing which women I would write about was a very personal decision. For reasons I cannot fully explain, each of them appealed to me at some point over these past decades and each of them cried out, “Tell my story.” I would hope every reader might make her or his similar friendships in the Bible.

A&W: Not all of the “wonder women” you describe in your book are good. You note, for example, that we turn “with a shudder” from Jezebel. What can we learn from her story and from others like hers?

CP: Of course they were not all good. I think it is a refreshing surprise to Bible readers to discover that not everyone in its pages is a “good” person. But just as we learn from history how not to act, so we can learn from the “bad” women of the Bible what we shouldn’t do. We can also ask why they acted as they did, so that perhaps we can better understand their circumstances.

Jezebel is a perfect example of someone we would call evil. Who was she? She was a woman from a higher culture married for political reasons, probably by the men of her family, into what was considered an inferior culture in northern Israel. She was determined not to be absorbed by it or by her weak husband’s decisions. Her methods were atrocious, but she certainly claimed her place in history, while we can barely remember who her husband was!

A&W: All of the women you write about lived in patriarchal societies, which many fundamentalists praise and many feminists condemn. What do you have to say to readers who look at the Bible in those ways?

CP: We are not being asked by God to replicate the circumstances in which these biblical women lived. The modern Western world is no longer patriarchal. That societal form is no longer needed for either physical security or to meet the needs of women, who now have lives outside their homes too. If the Bible is to be a living text, it has to resonate in our time and place. To attempt to be patriarchal is not God’s intention for us. We have to come to the text to ask: Is there something here that I, living in a western, democratic society, need to know so that I can live more fully and faithfully?

This might be the place to repeat my favorite rule for reading any page of the Bible: What did it mean then, what does it mean now, and what are we to do with it? Those simple rules put every text in its historical place and also help us move beyond mere literalism.

A&W: As a Catholic nun, you lead a life of sacrifice and devotion unimaginable to most contemporary secular women. At least in those respects, your life is closer to those of the women you write about than it is to your friend and students. Or is it? Is there a kinship among women that transcends time and place and religion?

CP: The great truth I have found as I return to the pages of the Bible again and again over the years is that human nature does not change regardless of the form that society takes. Whether nomadic or settled, rural or urban, living arrangements are transitory. However, women will always find kinship with other women. There is something that makes our hearts beat in unison with those of our foremothers. And to better understand us, men need to meet these women, too.

God made us two genders. We are not identical but complementary, each having gifts and qualities the other does not have. Genesis 1 expresses this by a simultaneous creation; Genesis 2 by having the man feel incomplete until the woman is made, and then he can say the Hebrew equivalent of “Eureka! At last I have someone with whom I can share.” We forget this important truth at our peril.

A&W: Fewer women than ever are entering religious orders. Your own order, the Sisters of Ursula, is down to a few dozen members in America, although it has many more members abroad. At the same time, we see young women committing acts of terror in the name of Islam. How would you counsel young women seeking a life of faith in a secular society that is so different from the world you describe in your book?

CP: I belong to a religious community that was founded 410 years ago to educate women and girls at a time when there were no schools for them in Europe. Today, on three continents, Sisters are still doing this in some form. I assure you that our Sisters in France, Switzerland, Germany, India, Africa, and the United States are not playing identical roles because they are adapting to what society needs now.

The history of women’s communities in the United States is a thrilling one. Sisters have established schools on every level, have run hospitals, opened college, taught generations of immigrants, and been social workers when that title did not yet exist. All this was work for a Church that wrestled, and is still wrestling, with the role of women in that Church. Where does the laywoman fit in a clergy-scarce church?

The challenge of religious life is: What are my gifts and how can I best serve God with them? For many, volunteer opportunities and a professional secular life can be the answer. Perhaps the Western world will see religious life in community diminish as an educated laity rises up. This is not true for Asia and Africa. Maybe we religious women have played our part on history’s stage, and it is time for someone else to assume the newer role. Sisters were once the great innovators, offering women a calling different from motherhood. Is there something crying to be born?

Or, a greater maybe, the Church will realize that it cannot afford to lose the talents of so many educated laity — which in what we Sisters are, in church law — and it might finally find a place for us.

For all these reasons it is great to be alive as life unfolds. It is also so encouraging to reread the stories of these biblical women called, like us, to walk with little certitude into that unknown called the future.

Sister Carol's Sunday morning classes are streamed live online at 10:00 a.m., ET, repeated most Sundays at 12:45 p.m., ET. (Encores streamed in July and August when Sister Carol is away). Old episodes are available in Marble Collegiate's Webcast Archive or on Vimeo. Read more about Waiting for Our Souls to Catch Up here.

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