What is your practice of Love? A reflection on V-Day + Lent.

Reflecting on this piece from Sr. Nancy Sylvester, I’m wondering what you all are thinking about today – at the meeting of a capitalist, cultural holiday and a liturgical moment. What are your intentional practices of Love? What are your traditions during Lent? What do you get rid of in your life, and what do you add to your life during this day or 40 days? How can we allow Love to transform us through daily acts and practices?

I’m sincerely wondering, because I want more intentional spiritual practices in my life. Things that confront my ego and addiction to technology. Things that ground me and slow me down. Things that remind me to value relationship to one another above status or success. So – tell me. What are your spiritual practices during this time of year?

And – excerpt:

“Those in positions of power and privilege during Jesus’ time felt threatened with Jesus’ lifestyle. What would happen if everyone was seen as equal, worthy of respect and dignity from one another? What would happen if the high priests couldn’t define which sacrifices, rules and laws were necessary to follow if people wanted to achieve a higher place in heaven? What if people believed Jesus’ message that God lives within us all?

Lent reveals the answer. The power of Love is so great a force that if not stopped — put to death — it would transform the world. The systems, structures and consciousness that privilege the few over the many would be no more.”

Read more from Nancy’s piece on Global Sisters Report. 

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Reflections on reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

There’s nothing better than picking up a book and feeling an instant connection to its contents, like it was just waiting for you to read it. The ideas from Paulo Freire are ones that were integrated into my education, both formally – through a liberation theology inspired professor and mentor – as well as informally, in my community, coming along side organizers that lived the pedagogy Freire promoted. Feeling familiar with his ideas, it is a gift to receive his beautiful language and thoughtful strategy. There are three shifts in thinking in particular that sparked questions in me as I seek to fulfill the vocation that Freire suggests, to humanize our world and make it easier to love.

 

From isolation to communion. According to Freire, communion with one another is the core of our work. As Che Guevara has said of his own work, “’communion with the people ceased to be a mere theory, to become an integral part of ourselves’” (170). Freire builds upon this that in dialogical theory, “at no stage can revolutionary action forgo communion with the people” (171). This turns into cooperation, and a fusion between leaders and people. True revolution is built upon communion. This links to Freire’s claim that the pursuit of full humanity “cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed. No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so” (85). Communion is the process and the goal. With this in mind, I’m left asking: What is my theology of communion? As a cradle Catholic who views communion more as a weekly sacrament and less as relational presence with one another, how can I ground this personally, and spiritually?

From banking to becoming. Freire suggests that our dominant educational system is like a banking system: knowledge is treated as a deposit that is hierarchically delivered from teacher (subject) to student (object). It is treated as rote memorization rather than true transformation. Shifting to a dialogical model of knowledge and transformation, where student and teacher join together in dialogue to uncover the truth of topics, rather than the facts, allows a horizontal structure for learning alongside one another as co-creators. This treats the individual – both teacher and student – as well as the world as constantly becoming. In his words, “Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming–as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (84). This is “revolutionary futurity,” “prophetic,” and “hopeful,” according to Freire. While this view of educational projects as constantly evolving with the people, with the content, is inspiring, and I have created and sustained groups that lived this value out, but I wonder how to live into this constant change while also providing stability and certainty for people. How can we be comfortable with change while also being something consistent for people to rely on? And what does it mean to provide transformational models while living in a transactional market system?

From political to cultural change. How do we make the change we seek happen? My answer to this question has become more about cultural, changing people’s attitudes and perspectives, rather than political, changing the policy that dictates our lives. As I heard once, while Jim Crow laws no longer exist, Jim Crow hate still does. While approaching change as an either/or decision between political and cultural is not the answer, I do think that some people’s energy is better spent on the long, hard cultural shift work, whereas others can deal with harsh political realities. Freire highlights this through the difference between systematic education, which is changed by political power, and educational projects, “which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them” (54). As he claims, in these educational projects, “it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.” This leaves me wondering where the coalition between those working for political and cultural change is possible: How can those working with political power, the reality of our systems, as well as cultural power, the hope of our societies, come together to imagine new realities together?

Freire wrote that “to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87). What power we yield as students, writers, speakers, and educators! I leave Pedagogy of the Oppressed with more words than before, with words that can promote dialogue and thus create communion. With words that continue the cycle of reflection and action in a way to deepen our vocations, individually and collectively. With words that can work toward a world “in which it will be easier to love.” It is through this love of the word, and love of the world, that I hope to keep asking these questions, and living into the answers.

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Additional quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed

On the Word, Reflection and Action.

The essence of dialogue is the word. He goes on, “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed­–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87).

On love.

From his preface, Freire sets the intention for the book to help “in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” In a footnote, he adds:

“I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. … The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. [Che] Guevara was not afraid to affirm it: ‘Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.’” (89)

On Culturally Confronting Domination.

“The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation. In both states, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted. In the first stage this confrontation occurs through the change in the way the oppressed perceive the world of oppression; in the second state, through the expulsion of the myths created and developed in the old order, which like specters haunt the new structure emerging from the revolutionary transformation.”

Spiritual Friendship of Women

Lately I’ve been sorting through some thoughts about the transformative power of friendship between women. I’m so lucky to have had empowering, grounding women at my side in all parts of my life – growing up, in college, in my community, professionally, and now in divinity school, as well as women – friends and mentors alike – encouraging, supporting, inspiring me. I can honestly say that the biggest decisions, the most important moments of my life, all have a brigade of women behind them. There’s something particularly vulnerable, transformational, and revolutionary about these friendships and mentorships, that even as a part of patriarchal societies and institutions we are able to help one another survive and thrive.
I’m still figuring out how all these ideas coalesce into my life, into a theory or praxis, but in the mean time I wanted to offer some readings, some food for thought, if you too are interested in thinking about the transformative power of friendship among women. I would love to know what you’re reading or considering as well, in hopes of a larger… theology of friendship, perhaps. None of this is all-encompassing, it’s not the only narrative, but it is – for me at least – a liberating narrative to consider myself a part of living and growing into.
 
A book I picked up at the beloved Dominican Center at Marywood, the home of my fellow Sisters & Seekers, that provided short meditations from a very cool feminist Nun on the narratives of women friendship in the Bible, reclaiming a history that’s been lost to patriarchal storytellers, affirming the power we have for one another in faith communities today.
 
How relational interdependency is a revolutionary method of freedom, freedom from capitalistic profit-driven world that re-centers us on one another and mutual support. The piece reminds us that “‘Friend’ and ‘free’ in English…come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties, because I am linked to a reality greater than me.”
Big Little Lies
I’ve been rewatching this HBO series and am just really struck by how fiercely these women support and advocate for one another, even amidst a larger narrative that is trying to pit them against one another for sake of drama and entertainment. The way women communicate with each other – confide in each other – seems to show how we’ve been saving one another all along, from assault, trauma,
 
Finally, coincidentally, an article that I posted on Facebook six years ago today, that reading again resonates just as much if not more, ends with a beautiful line:
“Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara… We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch—and help—one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life—now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.”

A Question for the Church

“You know, this prayer thing has me stumped. I really do want to pray. But when I sit down, my mind seems to go blank. I talk to God, but God never seems to talk back. After doing this for a while, I get discouraged and quit. But pretty soon, the nagging is back: “You should be praying.” So I make a resolution, start again, and pretty soon, I stop. What I really like to do is walk in the wild, so on Sunday afternoon, I give myself a treat and go out to the headlands and hike. Sometimes there I really feel like I am praying. But it doesn’t seem to carry over to Monday through Saturday. Anyhow, when my friend told me about the Spiritual Exercises, my heart jumped a little. So here I am.”
–A Contemporary Woman
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 113)

“A practice of daily reflection such as that proposed in the reclaimed examination of consciousness both depends on and fosters the skills of noticing, naming and acting on one’s awareness of God’s presence in daily life.”
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 116)

In my view, these ideas embodied today feel most resonate through Mary Oliver’s poetry. As she wrote in the poem, The Moths:

If you notice anything, 
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Is Mary Oliver an example of “A Contemporary Woman,” the mysteriously attributed author of the quote at the beginning of the reading? Is the Contemporary Woman bound to find spirituality outside of the institutions that have shut women out, or can women actually reclaim spiritual practices that were created intentionally without them in mind? How can something be reclaimed if it was never claimed by them originally?

Considering the way poets such as Mary Oliver embody Ignatian spirituality today, is this the arena in which women can truly live out such spirituality, outside of the patriarchal confines of religious/Catholic institutions? Or can women truly claim space within a tradition that has never really allowed for their full flourishing?

I appreciate the pushes for feminist reinterpretations of religious texts, but I wonder how much an interpretation counts when it is still not the dominant way of understanding and seeing a text. With this in mind, how can someone like Pope Francis, a spiritual visionary who is still confined to the traditional gender roles of the Catholic church, help shift culture toward a place that allows women’s spiritual gifts to be appreciated and used in broader applications within the church?

Farewell Interfaith Insight: Why This “None” is Going to Divinity School

This Interfaith Insight appeared in the Kaufman Interfaith Institute Inform on 7/18/17 and in the Grand Rapids Press on 7/20/17. 

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I am writing this Insight as my final piece working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Having been the Program Manager for the last four years, and as a college intern before that, the interfaith community across west Michigan has become my own community.

However, the time has come for me to build community elsewhere, and that place will be Harvard Divinity School in Boston. This fall, I will begin studies on religion, politics and ethics through their Master of Theological Studies program, learning alongside students of all religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds.

So in this final piece, I wanted to answer the question that many of you have asked me over the last four years: why do I, as a non-religious person, do interfaith work? And more relevant to my current plans, would would a non-religious person go to divinity school?

As I have written previously, I am one of those millennial “Nones,” a term that Pew Research coined to include the over one in three people under the age of 30 who are atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and basically anyone who would check on a form, “None of the Above” in regards to religious or spiritual identity.

Being a so-called “None” who convenes and facilitates religiously diverse interfaith spaces, my secular identity has often come up. Almost always the reaction I get is one of surprise and confusion. “But, if you’re not religious, why are you interested in religion?” Or phrased differently, “If you don’t have a faith, why would you be involved with interfaith?”

I never felt the need to ask myself this question until I moved to Grand Rapids. In my undergraduate studies, while certain stereotypes existed against atheists, I was never questioned as to why I was in such spaces. In my religious studies and political science classes, it was clear why I and my secular counterparts cared about learning about religion. Religion, spirituality, and faith were important to us – not only in our political activities nationally and internationally, but in people’s lives – in their activism, organizing, and careers.

For me, it was obvious: religion still matters. It was important for me to understand the traditions and followers in order to understand the world I am a part of. It makes my study of history, politics, and activism deeper and more authentic to the human experience, of which religion is such an integral part for so many individuals and communities.

While I may not be a person of faith, I am a part of a world where faith is an active dynamic affecting all of our lives. To engage with interfaith was a way of appreciating this aspect of existence, with an emphasis toward the lived experiences of people’s stories of faith as well as the doctrines that shape our lives and institutions.

Over these four years of organizing interfaith efforts in west Michigan, our dialogues and service projects did more than teach me new things about religious traditions. Each conversation, each relationship, quickly invoked a sense of “holy envy” in me. A term from Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, holy envy is the recognition of something so beautiful in another person’s tradition that you wish to reflect it in your own tradition.

Realizing how deepening I found interfaith work to be, both personally and professionally, I sought to continue this formation through divinity school.

But this leads to a second question you may be asking: why does a Divinity School let in someone who does not necessarily believe in the Divine? What even is Divinity School?

To many people’s surprise, Divinity School is about much more than training future pastors and ministers. Most notably, places like Harvard Divinity School and many others leading schools have programs that intentionally reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of our country. Harvard itself has multiple theological and ministry initiatives around all religious traditions, not just the Christian tradition.

Further, more and more atheists and spiritual seekers are attending divinity school out of a desire for grounded, morally-rooted education toward careers in activism, social work, and community organizing. Instead of the pulpit, though, these leaders are taking their divinity school skills into the streets, political offices, non-profit organizations, and more.

Specifically, I chose Harvard Divinity School because, as leaders they just marked their 200-year-anniversary, they are on the forefront of the conversation around the future of religious life in America. This is a future that they recognize not only includes the secular, the spiritual, and the seeking, but it is a future that needs these voices in particular to shape our society and communities that will serve all.

It is in this space that I wish to bring my experiences learned from Grand Rapids over the last four years into a place where we can imagine what the future of our shared public life looks like – across the religious, spiritual and secular diversity that too often divides us. After all, in the enduring words of civil rights leader Vincent Harding, we live in a time that calls us “to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground.”

I hope to continue to be a part of this conversation beyond the old boundaries, and seeking out new common ground, both continuously in Grand Rapids, and in my new home in Boston.

For those I have worked with and gotten to know during my time at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, I want to thank you for the ways in which you have welcomed and challenged me in my growth as an individual, an interfaith leader, and as a human being seeking spiritual meaning. I hope to keep up with as many of you as possible during this next chapter in my life! Please never hesitate to reach out and stay in touch. My continuing email will be katiegordon24@gmail.com.

C3: The Stories That Make Us–A (So-Called) None’s Ethic of Interfaith Cooperation

On Sunday, July 2nd, I delivered the “teaching” or “secular sermon” at C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection for the third time. Previously,  I shared stories of the so-called “Nones” and building community, as well as spoke about the interfaith youth movement and why millennials are particularly drawn into interfaith spaces. This time, since it was my final time before I leave for divinity school, I told a much more personal story – my own story. Or, more accurately, the stories that have shaped my own story.

The readings from the service are below. To watch or listen: the video can be watched here or audio can be found here. Hope you enjoy!

 

Readings:

“My sisters and brothers of every communion and community, of every household of faith, of the one family, clearly the word has been given. The worlds are now changing. This is our time to teach, to learn, to open the way for the seventh generation.

This is our time to dance, to fly, to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground. The story and the stories are within our hearts. Let us begin.”

-Vincent Harding, “Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement”

 

There Is Room for You in Me by K. Sherman, CSJ
“There is room for you in me. There is room for you in me.
For I am part of you and you are part of me.
From the moment time began, it was meant to be that
I am part of you and you are part of me.”

 

“Engrave this upon your heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you heard their story.” -Sister Mary Lou Kownacki