Thursday, December 5, 2013

Redoubtable nuns and men who get in the way

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 4.)

When I was a boy growing up in a small Hawke’s Bay town, every household would receive a free weekly guide to the films showing at the local picture theatre.
There was a mini-review of each film and it became a standing joke in our family that they were almost invariably described as “heart-warming”.

As a result, I’ve never been able to use the term “heart-warming” without a slightly derisive sneer. But a couple of days ago I watched a film that really was heart-warming, in the sense that you left the theatre feeling better about life and your fellow human beings than you might have been when you walked in.
Gardening with Soul is a feature-length documentary about Sister Loyola Galvin, who looks after the gardens at the Home of Compassion in the Wellington suburb of Island Bay – surely a challenging environment for even the greenest of fingers, given that the soil is not naturally fertile (Sr Loyola’s garden survives only with copious applications of home-made compost) and the climate often punishing.

Film maker Jess Feast spent a year observing Sister Loyola and clearly formed a close and mutually affectionate bond with her. It’s a simple film, beautifully shot and recorded. Every frame is impeccably composed, yet there’s nothing arty or pretentious about it. Like the character at its centre, it’s a no-nonsense piece of work.
Sister Loyola joined the Catholic order known as the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion in her mid-20s, after the man she expected to marry went away to the Second World War and never came back. It can’t have been an easy decision; her father, a Taranaki farmer to whom she was very devoted, was firmly set against her entering the convent and took years to come around. 

Now 90, Sister Loyola is slowed by age but mentally as sharp as a new pin, with bright, bird-like eyes. She radiates wisdom and practical, common-sense spirituality. Compassion, too, as you might expect, given the name of the order she joined.  She says – and I hope I’m quoting her more or less accurately – that it’s possible to see God in everyone, even the most unlikely people, if you look hard enough. If you could bottle that attitude, you’d call it Essence of Christianity.
She’s also quite frank, and jokes that she’s safely past the age when she risked being fired for speaking out of turn. She doesn’t hesitate to say what she thinks, for example, about the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

I have encountered nuns like Sr Loyola before. The Catholic Church, which I grew up in, has a tradition of strong – you might even say stroppy – women. There’s no better example than Mother Suzanne Aubert, the doughty Frenchwoman who founded the order to which Sr Loyola belongs.
Arriving in New Zealand in 1860, Aubert decided she hadn’t come halfway around the world to teach French and embroidery to the daughters of wealthy Aucklanders. Instead, she devoted herself to Maori and later to the care of the orphaned, the unwanted, the destitute and the disabled.

In many cases, formidable women such as Aubert had to overcome obstacles placed in their path by the male hierarchy of the Church. You get the feeling that the nuns had a very clear idea of what needed to be done and their male superiors often just got in the way. (For example, nuns working in the backblocks were told they should ride their horses side-saddle, in the interests of decorum – an instruction they sensibly ignored.)
There’s a moment in Gardening with Soul when Sister Loyola, reflecting on the Catholic hierarchy, talks about the nature of power. She doesn’t develop the idea but I wonder whether she was gently suggesting that men, and more specifically the male fondness for power, are problems for the Catholic Church.

If that’s indeed what she was talking about, it’s not just Catholicism that has a problem with authoritarian male hierarchies.
I believe that most organised religion is largely about the exercise of power and control, and these are usually – if not exclusively – male preoccupations.

This is certainly true of faiths that are organised hierarchically, whether it’s Catholicism, Judaism, Islam or Mormonism. In all such religions, power is exercised by men – a striking anachronism in the modern Western world, where women have otherwise rejected the notion of male control.
Only days ago I read that an Israeli woman had been ordered by a religious court to have her son circumcised, against her will, or face fines of nearly $200 a day for every day the procedure was not carried out.

It astonished me to learn that in Israel, which otherwise gives the impression of being a modern, liberal democracy, rabbinical courts have legal jurisdiction on religious issues. It almost goes without saying that the rabbis involved are men, and that their edicts, if translated from religious mumbo-jumbo, would read: “This is the way things must be done because, er, because they’ve always been done this way. And besides, we say so.”
In fact, reading between the lines of the rabbinical court’s ruling, what’s clear is that the rabbis were terrified that if one defiant soul succeeded in breaking ranks, the power they have exercised unchallenged for centuries might begin to crumble.

The article was accompanied by a photo showing a circumcision ceremony taking place in a crowded synagogue. What was noticeable was that virtually all the faces were male. Barely visible, at the very back of the room, were a handful of women straining for a view of the proceedings. No prizes for guessing who calls the shots, then.
In this respect, Judaism has much in common with Islam. The blokes rule there, too, albeit in an even more repressive fashion.

Can Catholicism claim to be any better? Well, yes. Women do have a say in the Church (as they do, no doubt, in the more liberal strands of Judaism), but it’s extremely limited. Even amid the welcome winds of change blowing through the Catholic Church since the election of the new pope, you still get the impression it would be a cold day in Hell before the cardinals and the bishops relinquished their hold on power.
But what a different Church it might be if the male hierarchy were flattened and good, sensible women were allowed to get on with things unimpeded.


Brendan McNeill said...


Your reflections on organized Christianity, and some other religious are accurate enough. What I find interesting in the context of your comments regarding women, was the dignity that Jesus accorded to them during his ministry, something that was counter cultural to say the lest.

Forgiving the women caught in adultery (where was the man), allowing a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears in the presence of the religious leaders of the day (to some criticism), his obvious friendship with Mary and Martha, the healing of the women who reached out to touch his robe in the crowd, through to requesting that his mother be cared for while he hung dying on the Cross.

Perhaps his admonition for church leaders today could best be found in Matthew chapter 20:25-27

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave

Vaughan said...

I like the idea in this article that the time is long overdue for women to be working side by side with men in faith communities.

And I think Brendan is spot on in drawing attention to Jesus,and to the quote about becoming a servant.

My view is that after a time, the original light brought by the founders of the great religions became obscured as clergy cloaked the lamp with their own, often misguided additions.

It seems to me the time for clergy is past. Ordinary men and women are now well educated. If properly elected into committees, they can take on the role of organising and encouraging their faith groups.

I like this quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921).
"The world of humanity has two wings – one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly."