Last month I spent a week with 140 women.
My wife approved.
Last month I confronted one of the greatest challenges -- and honors -- of my life. I had been asked several years earlier (obviously not knowing at the time that I would be silmultaneously preparing to move) to serve as the Scholar-in-Residence for a community of Benedictine Sisters at Mt. Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie.
Now, I knew something of this community. Personally and professionally, they hold great interest to me. The only person in Erie, Pennsylvania that my parents knew when I announced that I was moving from Boca Raton to this snowy Great Lake city was a member of this community, the former prioress, acclaimed author and internationally revered (and reviled) activist, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. My parents had met her, and been impressed by her, during a trip to the former Soviet Union. They said she was amongst the most impressive women they had ever met -- passionate, articulate, forceful, a clear thinker with a shining moral vision and a relentless albeit compassionate voice arguing for the world the way it should be. That was my parents' impression. Personally, I think they understated the description.
Sister Joan -- and through her the Benedictine community here -- greeted me with great warmth on my arrival in Erie. And at the same time, she opened my eyes.
Before I knew her, I had not met many nuns. Certainly not many nuns who would appear on 60 Minutes in favor of ordaining women as priests. As I came to know the community, watching their activism both on the world scale (the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi is headquartered here in Erie) and locally (the east side of Erie has only survived -- to the degree that it has -- because of the dedicated work of inner city volunteers drawn very heavily from these same Benedictines), my appreciation for the diversity of modern American Catholicism deepened greatly.
Now I know that they have their Commentary (by which I mean magazines espousing the most conservative positions one might expect) -- but they also have their Tikkun (a liberal Jewish response to Commentary -- the Catholic liberal equivalent is called Commonweal). Now I know that they have their Lubavitcher rebbe equivalents -- learned, scholarly, gentle souls busy revitalizing the Old Time Religion. But they also have their David Sapersteins -- fiery prophetic voices whose passion is heard... on the liberal side of the scale.
None of what I learned prepared me to spend a week amongst the community.
Well, it wasn't a full week. We began with the sisters coming to us. For the retreat began on Erev Shavuot. And at the morning festival service for Shavuot last month, Temple Anshe Hesed of Erie had approximately thirty congregants at services -- and 120 Benedictine sisters. It was an interesting opening.
But what I was least prepared for, I believe, was an intense encounter for almost a full week with people living out their ideals. What did it remind me of? It reminded me of a kibbutz. (A kibbutz without... well, never mind.)
The theme of the week was: "Tzedakah: The Role of the Individual in Creation." To tie these themes together, we dealt with Midrash, with Creation stories, with Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, with the relationship between autonomy of the individual and the authority of the tradition (a very interesting discussion to have with left-wing Catholics; try it some time, if you can find any left-wing Catholics nearby who are willing to talk), and the highest goal of tzedakah as being our obligation to build a better world. On an intellectual level, it was a wonderful exchange.
But it was more than that. Our disagreements were revealing, as well. I have always been schizophrenic on the subject of Israel. If I am among a group of committed Jews, Zionists whom I know love and care about our land, I am quite left wing myself. But if I am unsure of the group, if I do not know how deep runs their commitment to the safety and security of Israel as a Jewish state, I express myself quite differently. And with these nuns, whom I already knew to be committed to every peace process in the planet, I tacked hard to the right. Just so they knew how important Israel is to us.
But then we read the news. It was the week of the McVeigh verdict. And we began a discussion about capital punishment.
Their position was absolute. And clear. And unequivocal. Most of the women who spoke out were opposed to capital punishment under all circumstances. ALL circumstances. Even Eichman? I asked. Even Eichman.
It was in that discussion that everything flowed together for me, the vision of the beauty of the community in which I was a guest, the depth to which these women lived so many moments of their lives in accordance with the highest ideals of their prayers, their visions, their ongoing discussions. It was like late night college discussions, only carried out throughout one's life. It was, as I said, like the ideal vision I had of like on an ideologically dedicated kibbutz.
It was wonderful. It was beautiful. I loved it. It was not for me.
Okay, so I am not Catholic. And I am not female. Aside from those obvious differences, however, the intenseness of the spiritual setting, the closeness of the communtiy were things I value a great deal. The learning and discussion we shared together we amongst the most precious moments in my life.
But something about the Eichman discussion bothered me. I am not sure exactly what it was. Perhaps it is this: I am not sure what happened to my ideological purity and certainty. I am not sure what happened to my easy absolutes. I am not sure I live up to the best inside me often enough.
Once I was a pacifist. But Israel needs an army.
I am opposed to capital punsihment. Except when I am not.
There is no way to peace; peace is the way. Except against Nazis.
Think globally, act locally. But Wal-Mart has the cheapest baby formula.
I spent a week amongst women who appear to lead completely consistent lives. It is a compelling model. But it is not something I am easily able to achieve.
I spent a week with 140 women. I had a great time. I learned a lot. I was enriched, refreshed, renewed.
And then I came home. To my wife. And my son.
There are many different ways of serving the One God. And I am glad.