Seeing the World/1 [from The Book of Mev]

by Mark Chmiel

The second week of that Summer Program at Maryknoll, Mev made an announcement after one of the morning sessions that she was going to present some of her photographs in a slideshow/meditation on a night when there was no scheduled speaker.  Curious about what made this self-promoting impresario tick, I wanted to attend.  Her slideshow, with taped instrumental music to establish a contemplative mood, was a welcome relief from the intense, sometimes strangely cerebral presentations during the day about global liberation theology, the suffering of the poor, and the consequent responsibility of U.S. citizens.  She presented a series of her photos from her travels in Brazil, Mexico, Haiti and Russia, and, as I confronted the faces of Mev’s subjects, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Please Call Me by My True Names,” especially the concluding lines:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

Her meditation lasted about 15 minutes, leading the group of 20 into an awareness that our discussions during the day ultimately were about flesh and blood people, with names, faces, histories, heartaches, resilience and desires.  Afterwards, feeling hesitant to speak directly to Mev, I went up to my room and began to write out Nhat Hanh’s poem, since I had learned it by heart years before and often used it for a morning meditation. I also wrote a note of thanks to her for the presentation, and I pinned the note and poem for her on the community bulletin board.  This was safe, spiritual flirting.

The next day Mev thanked me for the poem.  She was delighted that I liked her work and said she had not heard of Thich Nhat Hanh, which rather surprised me.  Surely, if she were familiar with the prolific Trappist monk Thomas Merton and renowned Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, she would have come across their citing Nhat Hanh as a vital influence in their own lives.  I recalled that Berrigan once referred to Nhat Hanh as “foam-rubber dynamite,” as he was the monk who helped lead the Buddhist peace movement during the cataclysm in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.   Back in 1983 I’d been given a mimeographed copy of Nhat Hanh’s manual, The Miracle of Being Awake, by Brother Anthony, a wiry, garrulous monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, outside of Bardstown, Kentucky, where my community and I used to escape city bustle for quiet days of reflection.  But I learned that Mev had other spiritual teachers.  She said she’d studied at St. Louis University with John Kavanaugh.  “The John Kavanaugh of Following Christ in a Consumer Society?” I asked. I had read Kavanaugh’s stimulating book right after I graduated from college.  “Yep, one and the same.”  Feeling ever so emboldened by this inconsequential exchange, I told Mev I’d like to get together sometime to hear more about the work she’d recently done in Brazil, and she beamed, “Sure.”  She appeared eager for any audience, even an audience of one.  But as is so often the case with fresh acquaintances, we didn’t make specific plans and, before long, the day’s events at Maryknoll had us going in different directions.

I had first studied at Maryknoll in the summer of 1985, when I met Marc Ellis, a young, provocative professor and the director of the Institute of Justice and Peace.  Ellis’s reflections on the Jewish struggle to be faithful after the Holocaust prompted me to do a little genealogical work when I returned to Louisville. I recalled my father’s vague references to his granny’s incomprehensible Yiddish as I was growing up, and had realized that my father had been born of a Jewish mother.  During the latter 1980s, my father, who converted to Catholicism in the early 1950s so as to be able to marry my mother, would say, almost as a boast, “I’m 99% Jewish.”  I only corrected him a couple of times, when I reminded him that he was also “50%” Polish,” as his father had left Warsaw in the first decade of the century.  I would occasionally visit my great-aunt Leah, who lived close to the University of Louisville, and she would tell me stories about our family, which came over from Russia in the early 1900s. My mother, being of German descent, seemed a little put off by my growing interest in all things Jewish:  “You never ask about my side of the family.”  I didn’t feel a need to; after all, I’d grown up around  them all my life.

People gathered at the 1988 Maryknoll Summer Institute to celebrate the life and work of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, had become a classic in theological circles.  Over 100 participants from around the world had come to Ossining to pay tribute to Gustavo and to ponder the future of this dramatic, dangerous kind of grassroots Christianity.  Oddly enough, Maryknoll, in opulent Westchester County, was the headquarters of some radical and committed priests, nuns, brothers and lay people, and it was a natural place to reflect, ponder, pray and explore the road ahead.

The Roman Catholic Church had long been in cahoots with the Latin American military and oligarchy — basically, the super-rich.  And with the rise of Christian Base Communities, prophetic bishops, Bible study and literacy campaigns, some sectors of the church began to walk away from the good life with the generals and landowners and into the slums.  Thus, in Latin America, to be a certain kind of Christian invited persecution, disappearance and torture, compliments of the powerful, who did not like their status quo messed with.  While vocations to the priesthood and religious orders plummeted in the U.S. church after Vatican II, Latin American vocations were on the rise, in a situation where people were getting killed for practicing their faith (a.k.a. being “subversives”). Part of the Latin American church was vitally, dynamically engaged in the struggle for justice and, so, under siege.  As the outspoken Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara remarked, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a Communist.”

Marc Ellis was a chief organizer of the conference and so was frequently meeting with presenters and students.  One Saturday morning, I finally had a chance to chat with him.  I ran into him as he waited with his luggage in the main hall at Maryknoll during a break from one of the sessions.  He was soon on his way to Kennedy Airport to fly to Oxford for a Holocaust conference on “Remembering for the Future.”   Ever congenial with me, Ellis took time to ask me how I was enjoying the program.

“I like it, many great theologians are here.  But you know, Marc, sometimes even liberation theology can sound a little too triumphal.”  I didn’t need to spell out what I meant to the Jewish professor, for he knew as well as I did that there were occasional strains of liberation theology that reformulated traditional Catholic assertions of being the Way, the Truth and the Life. Since my own probes into my family background, Jewish history and the Holocaust, I had gotten much more sensitive to such features of the Catholic faith.  I then put my cards on the table:  “You know, what I’d really like is to come to Maryknoll full-time.  I have plenty of parish experience and I’d love to study.”  There were times when I felt like an outsider to what I judgmentally deemed as cocky Catholicism, even in its upbeat American manifestation, and I felt often at ease with Ellis, probably the only Jew ever employed at the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America.  It was also because he was only seven years older than me and so laid-back, in his faded jeans, worn-out Nikes and rumpled plaid shirts.  Perhaps this informality of his had been reinforced by his own experience of living at the New York Catholic Worker House in the 1970s when its co-founder, Dorothy Day, was still alive.

Intrigued, Ellis informed me, “The great thing about Maryknoll is the intersection it provides:  First World and Third World, intellectuals and activists, Christian liberation theology and, with me here, recent Jewish thought.”  He smiled, took out a piece of paper, scribbled a note, and asked me to give it to Maryknoll’s Director of Admissions the following Monday.   I found out that next week that Ellis had recommended that I be given a complete tuition scholarship for the Master’s Program in Justice and Peace Studies, with room and board thrown in.  This was one of those uncanny examples of the fulfillment of “Knock, and the door shall be opened to you.”

Present among us at Maryknoll were such religious thinkers and activists as Enrique Dussel, a philosopher forced by military threats to leave his native Argentina in the early 1970s; Rosemary Radford Ruther, an American Catholic feminist theologian; and Gregory Baum, a Jew born in Austria in the 1920s who later converted to Catholicism.   Each of these intellectuals was committed to a Catholic Christianity open to the world, explicitly critical of social injustice, and supportive of an inclusive community.  Other theologians had also come from Trinidad, Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Germany, Chile, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Indonesia. There were scores of other lay workers, ministers, activists, priests, nuns, academics and grad students, some of whom had worked in base Christian Communities abroad or their equivalents in the United States.  Spanish (and, I would later realize, Portuguese) was becoming the theological language to know, supplanting German and French after Vatican II.  These Latin American languages, reflecting the original European conquest, were now also the tongues of the refugees, the children, the manual laborers, the farmers, the elderly — el pueblo, o pôvo — whose faces Mev had captured so poignantly in her photos, those faces that invited us to wake up.

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