April 8, 2014

Sister Carol Perry: A Practical Faith

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In your book Waiting for Our Souls to Catch Up, you address some critical words to people who are "spiritual but not religious." Could you expand on your criticism?

My critique of the “spiritual but not religious” sector of our society stems from the fact that many of its proponents fail to go deeper on the spiritual journey. They rest on the feeling level and consistently search for new sources of spiritual feelings without ever committing themselves to a consistent spiritual journey. They are forever experimenting. This isn’t always conscious. I am not being accusatory, but no true journey of the soul can rest on feelings alone. The messy part of that journey involves a commitment to one’s neighbor, perhaps through a church community, perhaps through service, but in some way the spiritual life has to reach out beyond oneself. “No man is an island,” and it is hard to find that balance.

At the same time, you are strongly opposed to fundamentalists — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike. How does your faith differ from theirs?

My faith differs from that of most fundamentalists because they are so unaccepting of that priceless gift of individual conscience, which every human being should have the freedom to follow. I accept their right to their convictions, but not to the point that those convictions should destroy me. It is the intolerance of fundamentalism that is so scary. Religious wars and persecutions for religious reasons are wrong, be they the Crusades of the Middle Ages or the jihad of the Muslim extremists today. No one group has a monopoly on truth.

What would you say to contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris if they were brave enough to come to your Bible study group?

If any contemporary atheist should drop in on my Bible study group, I know we would make sure that he had coffee and a cookie. Then he would be welcome to stay and join our study in the spirit of asking honest questions and hearing possible answers, but we might bristle if he ridiculed us. We would not ridicule him. What most annoys me about the more prolific of the modern atheists is their sarcastic attitude towards those of us who believe. That visiting atheist might discover in our class some very thoughtful people who think differently, and that’s fine.

Why did you become a nun, and when? Did you come from a religious background? How did your family react?

I became a Sister because I wanted my life to count for something. When I reached high school and met some members of my present religious community, I so admired what they were doing. They came from a long tradition, dating back to 1606, of educating women. They were modern in the best sense of that word, and they formed for each other a happy supportive community. Why not see if I could do the same?

My mother, a widow since I was an infant, was a deeply committed woman of faith. I was surrounded by an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins who were sturdy, practicing Catholics in a most balanced way. After some initial questions, my mother was very supportive of my life choice.

You're a Sister of St. Ursula, yet for 30 years you've been the resident Bible scholar at Marble Collegiate Church, a Protestant church. How did this come about? What does the Catholic Church have to say about this unorthodox arrangement? And how does it strike the Protestant community at Marble?

I arrived at Marble Collegiate Church almost by accident. A talk to their women’s group on biblical women led to an invitation to share a weekend retreat. A member of the church staff overheard an impromptu answer to a biblical question and decided I might be able to fill a vacancy teaching their Adult Bible class on Sundays. I initially said “no” about ten times, not very sure about crossing ecumenical lines. In addition, I already had a full-time job teaching high school English and religion. We eventually decided to experiment with a six-week class, at the end of which either side could say “Enough.” That was 34 years ago!

It has been a blessed three decades, chiefly because of the openness of that congregation. They wanted to learn, and I loved to teach. We respect each other’s faith journeys, and I have never been made to feel like an outsider. I think it is the Word of God that unites us, and that is the reason that, when I retired from teaching high school 17 years ago, I joined the staff almost full time.

The most famous minister at Marble was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Did you know him? What can you tell us about him? How has his legacy of inspiring and insightful commentary continued to influence Marble's presentation of faith to its congregation and the larger world?

Naturally, I could not begin at Marble without meeting with Norman Vincent Peale, since he was technically my “boss.” At that point in his life, he was a respected older preacher who had found his way through the grim years of the Great Depression when he first arrived at Marble. His own faith had broadened from those years when Catholics and Protestants had seen each other as enemies. He was warm and open to this unusual venture of having a Catholic nun on his staff. We parted on the note that we would pray for each other. I kept my part of that promise. I hope he did too.

It is easy to mock The Power of Positive Thinking as a Pollyanna approach to life. It is not. Read carefully, it is a real Christian way of living. While some of the examples from the original text might be a bit dated, the basic concept remains psychologically valid. Dr. Peale and Dr. Smiley Blanton were pioneers in recognizing that faith and psychiatry could and should work hand in hand for the good of the soul and mind.

That blend of humanity and good Christian thinking has continued to shape Marble’s message and undergirds the welcome every visitor receives as he or she comes through the door. It is indefinable but perceived.

Now that both my Bible study and the Sunday worship are live-streamed around the world, you should see the messages received from this new online congregation. This is still a practical faith.

The Foundation of the Sisters of St. Ursula will celebrate its 200th anniversary this summer in Tours, France. And the order dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. Yet your numbers are dwindling in the United States. Tell us about the history of your order and what you see as its future, here and abroad.

In the western world we communities of religious women are victims of our own success! At the time of my community’s foundation in France in 1606, and then its refoundation in 1814, after the horrors of the French Revolution, education for women was not a priority. Even on the highest levels of society, women were barely encouraged to be literate. Many communities of religious women changed that, above all in Europe and in the United States and Canada, where education on every level is now available to women. In other parts of the world this still has to happen. Just consider the resistance to educating girls in so many Muslim countries.

My community is international, and our Sisters in India see both the need and have the vocations to respond in large numbers. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, political instability is one of our chief adversaries. This whole question of vocations and of needs is really a nation-by-nation issue.

In the United States, Catholic women aspire to have a more recognized voice in their church, which has not encouraged this, to put it gently. It is a problematic area that can no longer be ignored.

The future? Only the Holy Spirit knows what and how the gifts of Catholic women will be shaped in the future, but she is at work!

The Catholic Church has a new pope, one who has proved hugely popular — and immensely different from his predecessors during the past 50 years. What are your hopes — and your concerns — for the Church under Francis?

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, the choice of Pope Francis is one of the most incredible of her accomplishments! He has galvanized the attention of the world as he attempts to change the direction and functioning of that unwieldy behemoth, the worldwide Catholic Church. For some, he is moving too quickly; for other, too slowly. But he has begun to put a face of joy on religion and he has called for a recognition of our brothers and sisters in the poor. He has the attention of the world, and that is amazing. What other changes will come as he faces the rigors of culture and the ingrained roles of men and women in other societies, we will see. For example, in the U.S. we are close to being ready for new roles for women, even ordination, but Africa and the Far East are not there yet. For now, I can only cheer every change he makes in the Roman Curia and every positive comment on the modern world, which has for too long been held at arm’s length by the hierarchy.

I pray health and courage for Francis as he pushes the Church to be the true face of Jesus today.

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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