Dear Archbishop Schnurr

I felt called to respond to the expanded moral conduct clause in the teacher contract here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and submitted this letter via their website earlier today.

Dear Archbishop Schnurr,

I am deeply disturbed by the new teacher contract for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and am writing to ask that the moral conduct clause be restated in a more reasonable fashion. The provision prohibiting “public support of or homosexual lifestyle” is especially problematic because it fails to recognize the lived experience of people with same-sex orientation and their families and friends. Its implications will cause tremendous harm.

The church has tried, unsuccessfully in my view, to distinguish between a homosexual orientation and homosexual acts, and the new contract language points to the difficulties underlying this attempted distinction. A person with a gay or lesbian orientation lives his or her lifestyle as a gay or lesbian person. But an orientation is not conduct that a person chooses, it’s inherently who they are. Moving on to consider homosexual acts, applying such criteria is difficult to the point of ludicrous. Are we to inquire whether a person with a gay or lesbian orientation is committing “homosexual acts” to determine if he or she is acceptable? Given the absurd impracticality of this idea, the clause therefore implies that simply having a gay or lesbian orientation is not permissible for a Cincinnati archdiocesan school teacher. Does this clause intend that people with a gay or lesbian orientation are barred from teaching in Cincinnati archdiocesan schools?

From the opposite perspective, how is a Catholic school teacher to relate to friends and family who have a gay or lesbian orientation? For example, what if one’s child is gay, not a practicing Catholic, and married or living with a partner? Is a teacher not permitted to be seen in public with them at a cultural or social event or in a restaurant, or invite them to dinner in his or her home? How can this be enforced? Who would want to?

I am most concerned about the impact on young people of the contract’s exclusionary approach. The ever-tightening circle of who is acceptable to the church can only do harm to children and teens, particularly regarding matters of sexual orientation and identity. What will happen to middle- and high school students of Cincinnati archdiocesan schools who awaken to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer (LGBTQ) orientation? How are they to feel when their teachers or counselors – typically a potential support network – will be at risk of termination for providing that very support? Who will be there for them? Why would they want to be part of a church that ostracizes them?

An exclusionary approach is the exact opposite of what’s needed. National statistics on the plight of LGBT teens require that the church focus on providing pastoral care and inclusion, not drawing boundaries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a 2009 survey of 7,000 LBGT students age 13-21 showed:
• Eight of ten students had been verbally harassed at school
• Four of ten had been physically harassed at school
• Six of ten felt unsafe at school
• One of five had been the victim of a physical assault at school

An earlier study of adolescents in grades 7-12 found that LGBTQ teens were more than twice as likely as heterosexual students to have attempted suicide. The CDC recommends a number of steps that schools can take to create a safe environment for LGBTQ youth, including:
• Identify “safe spaces,” such as counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations, where LGBTQ youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.
• Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs that promote a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment (e.g., gay-straight alliances, which are school clubs open to youth of all sexual orientations).
• Encourage staff to develop and publicize trainings on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and encourage staff to attend these trainings.
• Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience in providing social and psychological services to LGBTQ youth.

The new teacher contract prohibition on “public support” prevents schools from offering such services to LGBTQ students, making Cincinnati archdiocesan schools distinctly unsafe places for LGBTQ youth. Is this intentional? The church’s harsh position as evidenced in the new contract will only reinforce family rejection of LGBTQ teens, already a tragic phenomenon in this country. Studies suggest that one-quarter to one-half of homeless youth are LGBTQ and they became homeless because of their parents’ reaction to their orientation.

It is understandable that the archdiocese wishes to be clear about its expectations that teachers adhere to church teaching in their behavior, but the new moral conduct clause goes too far in regards to all the designated issues, not just sexual identity. No one lives in a fortress; none of us, including Catholic school teachers and bishops, can withdraw from a society in which many people live together and/or have children outside of marriage, have abortions, utilize medical infertility treatments or surrogate mothers, and have LGBTQ orientations. As already evident from past cases, women are disproportionately and unjustly affected by the requirements regarding pregnancy and sex outside of marriage. Has a male teacher ever been fired for having sex outside of marriage?

The definition of teachers as ministers is clearly a legal strategy to reduce or eliminate federal employment protections for teachers, in no way pastorally or educationally based. The addition of this tactic is especially disheartening after the wounds caused by the church’s litigation-driven approach to the sex abuse crisis. Ultimately, the meaning of “public support of” any of these matters could be determined in the courts, a process that is inherently divisive, and certainly in no way healing, pastoral, or theological.

I urge you and the superintendent of Catholic schools to consider the true needs of our young people, especially those with LGBTQ orientation, and revise the moral conduct clause to encourage loving, caring, inclusive behavior.


Peg Conway

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No Minor Occasion

Our third and youngest child, Christian, is 18 years old today. Wow! Now in my bio I can state with total accuracy that I have three young adult children. I purchased IMG_0656[1]the plastic “Happy Birthday” banner shown here on our oldest’s first birthday, launching a family tradition. Last night as I reminded myself aloud to put up the banner, I remarked to Joe that this likely would be the last time we’d hang the birthday banner, that from now on our children would rarely if ever be waking up at here with us on their birthdays. I started to feel a weight of sadness at this realization, but in the next instant it seemed too melodramatic, morbid even, and the wrong mindset. I looked at Joe and said, “I don’t want to focus on all the ‘lasts’ that are upon us. They’re just not worth dwelling on.”

Advance contemplation of endings reminded me of the play we saw on Friday night at the Ensemble Theater here in Cincinnati. “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall imagines April 3, 1968, the last night of Martin Luther King’s life, in his motel room in Memphis after he has delivered a major speech. A motel employee brings coffee to the room, and their encounter leads to unexpected revelation and insight for King. He is forced to confront two profound truths: “You’re not in control of everything.” And, “It’s not all about you.”

CJCbaby-2Parenting in general raises such awareness, but Christian particularly has been the bearer of these messages for me. From infancy, he made it clear that he is his own person. We already had experience with a boy and a girl, so Joe and I felt confident in how to raise this son. Wrong! Christian slept less and more randomly, embraced a much broader food palate, and played according to his unique imagination. But we gradually learned to cast aside our prior knowledge or patterns and to trust Christian’s intuitive sense.  At age 6, out of the blue he said, “Mom, I want to do a play. Find me a play!” So I did, and since then he has been in at least one show each year, including three plays during every year of high school. Also at age 6, he begged to accompany his older siblings to a five-day overnight farm program four hours away in Holmes County, OH. He met the minimum age, so with the encouragement of the camp director we relinquished our qualms and let him go. Christian never looked back, loved every minute of it, and continued to visit The Country School the next seven summers for at least one week, often two.

Soon we will finalize his college decision, and I expect Christian’s intuition will be the guiding factor, no matter my preferences or fears.  In response to a “Happy birthday, Christian” Facebook posting that I made last night, a friend queried, “Now that Christian is 18, does this mean your job as parents is over?” I’ve been thinking about this question all morning, and I would say the answer is largely “Yes.”

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IMG_20140321_144835Arriving in St. Paul last week to give a program based on my book, I drove directly to the James J. Hill House, a 42-room mansion built in 1891 on a bluff overlooking downtown, to visit an heirloom. I love historic sites and was quite entranced with this one when my son Michael and I toured it during a college visit trip in 2009.

James J. Hill was born in Canada in 1838, came to Minnesota as a young man, and began work for a steamboat company. During the Civil War, he organized supplies and learned the business of buying, transporting and selling goods; afterward he worked for the railroad and later started a business to sell coal to railroads as fuel. Hill went on to amass a huge fortune developing the Great Northern Railroad from St. Paul all the way to the Pacific. Critics called it “Hill’s Folly,” but he proved them wrong after its completion in 1893.

For last week’s visit I had emailed ahead, so the young woman at the reception desk recognized my name and gestured toward the music room in welcome. The semi-circle of folding chairs was not in use by a tour group at that moment, so I was able to enjoy a quiet IMG_20140321_143818view of the gold-plated fireplace fender that Joe and I had delivered to the Hill House two summers ago, now returned to its proper home.  Four decades earlier, this fireplace fender had traveled from Crosslake, MN, to Cincinnati in the trunk of my dad’s Buick, a gift from his maternal uncle, and it graced our family’s fireplaces in two different homes for nearly 25 years. From time to time, my dad would note with pride that the fireplace fender was from the James J. Hill House, the founder of the Great Northern Railroad. Always I could repeat that refrain, without thought to its meaning or wonder at how we happened to possess this fireplace fender.

As we walked through the house on tour in 2009, the guide’s stories conjured the Downton Abbey-like lifestyle of the Hill family from the early 1890s through 1920s.  James had married Mary Theresa Mehegan, daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, in 1867, and they had 10 children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood. Employing a staff of 10-12, Mary Hill also kept detailed diaries and records of household activity, including grocery bills and party menus. The Hills were early photography enthusiasts, and many walls feature vintage black and white images depicting the rooms as they were during their tenure. Mary Hill was a committed Catholic, active in many Church-related charitable and philanthropic activities, an example that several of her adult children followed.

The conspicuous absence of furniture in the house prompted a question from someone in the group. The guide explained that many of the original furnishings had been custom-designed for the house, in keeping with Hill’s rising prominence as a businessman. James died in 1916, and after Mary’s death in 1921, the family eventually purchased the mansion from the estate and donated it, furnished, to the Catholic archdiocese of St. Paul. The Church variously used it as a school, offices and residence for the next 50 years, over the course of which the furnishings were dispersed. When the house was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978, they opted not to use period furniture since the originals had been so distinct.

That’s when the penny dropped: My dad’s uncle had been a priest of the St. Paul archdiocese and worked in the chancery.

Thus began a series of conversations about returning the fireplace fender to its original home. My parents had been living in a condo without a fireplace for more than ten years by this point, and none of my siblings had a place to use it either. Though my dad resisted sentiment regarding material possessions, it would not be easy to let go of this treasured item. Ultimately the decision felt bittersweet, because the diminishing effects of dementia impacted my dad’s capabilities. How fully he understood the matter was unclear. But even so, I am glad we completed the gift process before he died in June 2013.

IMG_20140321_143858At the Hill House last week, gazing at the music room fireplace now re-outfitted with its shiny gold fender, I smiled to imagine how Al might have groused about this donation, possibly even claiming that a precious item had been seized without his permission.  But his twinkling eyes and teasing grin would reveal laughter lurking just beneath the words of protest.  In fact, he would relish – for years — having such a tale of his mistreatment to recount to friends and family at any opportunity.  As I will long savor the memory of this encounter.

Posted in Communion of Saints | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Induced Meandering for Lent

Until this week I had never heard the lyrical phrase in the title of this post.  “Induced meandering” is a term from rainwater management that refers to strategies that slow down the flow of water so that more of it can be absorbed into the earth, and I learned it from an article shared on Facebook by my friend Amy Bogard.

Whenever you can encourage rainwater runoff to slow down, to take a more circuitous route, to wind its way down a hill rather than rush full speed toward the gutter, storm drain, or gully below, you increase the likelihood for induced meandering — and the likelihood that this runoff can become a resource rather than a nuisance.

When runoff slows down, it sinks in as it flows down slope. As the water sinks in, it irrigates plants. This not only provides water for those particular plants but, over time and given enough precipitation, refills the groundwater tables below, contributing to the overall health of the surrounding region.”

By analogy the writer, Erin Dunigan, suggests that just as rocks and dirt installations can slow water in a constructive way, our Lenten practices serve the same purpose for our lives.  “More than giving up or self-denial, Lent, when practiced intentionally, can allow time for self-examination, reflection, and preparation. It’s a time of slowing down, intentionally, so that life is given a chance to sink in, not just run off in so many directions,” she said.

The visual image of rain runoff is particularly vivid to me as our very large backyard is a watercourse; during major downpours, water fills nearly its entire width, a fast flowing current diagonally across from the southwest corner to the northeast, into our neighbor’s yard and on into a creek system.  Personal contact with the physical reality perhaps accounts for the strong resonance I find with this symbolic meaning for Lent, which seems a gentler, more nurturing way of approaching it.

My personal Lent began very unusually.  On Mardi Gras, I attended a wonderful presentation by former Sen. Olympia Snowe, so I wasn’t home to enjoy our traditional waffle dinner followed by burning palm to create ashes.   Then yesterday I couldn’t even attend an Ash Wednesday service because of an elected officials training workshop that had been postponed from February due to snow.  On the flip side, I typically obsess and worry over what to “do” for Lent and find it difficult to relate to the prayer-fasting-almsgiving triad, but earlier this week, out of a clear blue several ideas came to me that seemed just right.

Prayer:  Since the new year, I’ve been reading Jan Richardson’s In the Sanctuary of Women, and the present chapter on the desert mothers and lectio divina invites me to engage a scripture-based practice.  My forays into Judaism have led to a focus on the Torah over the Gospels, so Lent seems like a good time to spend some time with Jesus.  I’m reading Matthew’s Gospel with no particular goal or pace in mind, just noticing what I notice.

Fasting:  My teenage son rolled his eyes when I announced that Joe and I have agreed to give up wine during the week for Lent.  I know it sounds like such a partial (wimpy) gesture — a “real” sacrifice would be to give it up for the entire season — but I wanted to choose something realistically do-able.  And I will miss!

Almsgiving:  I must admit that the Rice Bowl approach just has never worked for me. We give funds to charity in other ways, so it wasn’t meaningful.  Thinking about it differently, lately I have been aware how often I fall down the social media rabbit hole in the evening hours, and I end up going to bed too late with my mind in overdrive.  So considering my time to be alms, I’ve resolved to skip computer time after dinner.

These are the rocks I’ve placed in the path of my days in hopes of meandering through Lent.  We’ll see what sinks in!

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Ministry Commissioning

I’ve shared here previously about the process of becoming a certified celebrant that I’ve been pursuing the past couple years.  Originally I embarked on this online course of study through Global Ministries University as a complement to the work I wanted to do offering birth retreats based on the content of my book, Embodying the Sacred.  But the course addressed rites of passage of all kinds, and the idea of being legally qualified to officiate at weddings appealed to me.  By itself the celebrant certificate does not meet Ohio’s IMG_0635[1]requirement to be licensed or ordained by a religious society or congregation in order to preside at weddings, so I applied for commissioning through the Federation of Christian Ministries, which involved answering questions, writing essays and asking several people to submit recommendations.  My acceptance came this week in the form of the beautiful certificate pictured here, a copy of which I will send to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office with the minister license application.  Up to this point, the commissioning seemed rather a formality, but I found the certificate’s wording surprisingly moving:

We certify that Peg Conway is authorized to function as a minister in the Christian church, to proclaim the Gospel, assemble the community, and support human service.  We recognize by this document, the education, training, character, and charism of this minister.

Very affirming!  I’m looking forward to attending a national assembly of the the Federation of Christian Ministries this summer in Cleveland.  The organization has been around since 1968 but seems tailor-made for today’s circumstances, particularly with the growth of independent Catholic communities.  From their website:

The Federation of Christian Ministries (FCM) has its roots in the Vatican II era that affirmed the primary identity of the Church as the pilgrim people of God and embraced a dialogue with the modern world.

In 1968 the Society of Priests for a Free Ministry (SPFM) began to give voice to priests looking for church reform, especially for optional celibacy.

In 1973 SPFM changed its name to Fellowship of Christian Ministries (FCM) reflecting the growing interest in small communities of faith as a more ecumenical and professional religious organization with its own certification program in ministry.

FCM acknowledged that each Christian has a charism to share, and that certification or recognition of that charism can have a public and civil dimension as well as an ecclesial aspect in preaching, presiding at liturgies, witnessing marriages, conducting funerals and providing pastoral and spiritual care as chaplains.

In 1981 FCM became the Federation of Christian Ministries to include people of various religious traditions, and to affirm women as equals and partners in ministry. FCM had diversified its membership through the Committee on Denominational Concerns and allowed for a variety of interfaith expressions in community, ministry and worship.

Today FCM is a Faith Group member of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. (ACPE) and is listed in the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. FCM has a process called Endorsement for Specialized Ministry for commissioned members seeking employment in chaplaincy or clinical pastoral work. It has a national Circle of Directors, a bimonthly FCM Newsletter, holds a national assembly annually and offers continuing education and bachelors to doctoral degrees through Global Ministries University.

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philomenaAfter seeing “Philomena” last night, in a brief Facebook post I called it “affecting.” I chose that word deliberately because of the mixed emotions evoked by the film, and others’ responses to this comment reflect similar divergence.  I loved the movie, but it left me feeling angry and terribly, terribly sad.

That being said, Philomena herself is inspiring.  She demonstrates great fortitude and spiritual depth to forgive the nuns for their treatment of her while under their care as an unwed pregnant teen and mother in 1950s Ireland.  She was refused any pain relief during an excruciating breech birth as penance for her sin, and she’s given no notice of her son’s adoption, no opportunity to say goodbye.  He was three years old by then in 1955; they had a warm and loving relationship even though she saw him only an hour a day.  Alerted by a friend, she runs to the gate, screaming and sobbing as the car pulls away with his chubby-cheeked face visible in the back windshield.  These two incidents actually occurred as portrayed in the film.  Over the years, she never forgets him and when 50 years have passed, finally she begins to search for her son. The actual process unfolded differently than presented in the movie, but the nuns’ obstruction of her efforts is substantively true.  Yes, the law prevented them from releasing records, but the particular circumstances years later called for a pastoral response, not a legalistic one.

Ultimately, our admiration for Philomena’s resilience cannot be permitted to eclipse the cruelty that was done to her by the Church’s representatives.  Our affection for Philomena does not change that reality in her individual case or on the matter of unwed mothers in general.  And we cannot write off her experience as being “of a different time,” because unmarried pregnant women are being treated badly by the Church right now, despite its vocally stated pro-life priorities.  Last month, the Diocese of Helena, MT, fired a teacher who became pregnant and is not married, and the same thing happened here in the Cincinnati area two years ago, because their contracts included a clause requiring them to live by Catholic teachings.  Again, a legal response to a pastoral situation.   Cathleen Kaveny expresses the ramifications of this approach in a blog post at Commonweal on the Montana situation:  “I think the message that firing this teacher conveys to the students is that they, too, are subject to being “fired” from the Catholic community if they misbehave in any way. After all, the little school is probably the main Catholic community they’ve known.  For all the talk of love and understanding and forgiveness, in the end, it is a hard and abstract contractual provision–a sign of willing, not being–that counts the most. For all the talk of a rich and humble inner life, it is a wholesome appearance that matters most.”

Throughout the  movie Philomena resists “making waves” as she and Martin, the journalist assisting her, endeavor to learn about her son, but when the nuns’ stonewalling becomes undeniable, along with forgiving them, she decides that she does want her story published.  It is this small but significant gesture that plants a seed of hope.  Stories are powerful, and we must tell them, no matter how hard they are to hear.

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Light of Revelation

IMG_0621[1]February 2 gives us many angles for celebration in the liturgical calendar alone, besides the ground hog and this year the Super Bowl too, but my favorite aspect of the day is Candlemas, which I have celebrated communally just once in my life.  When I was in graduate school at Northwestern, sometimes I would attend the 4:30 pm weekday mass and one afternoon in winter — February 2 — the priest gave us all tapers and explained that it was Candlemas, an occasion to process with lit candles and to bless candles for the year.  I had never heard of this custom, but each year I recall the uplift provided by that spontaneous ritual, so unexpected and joyful and coming just when the lengthening of days is becoming noticeable.

Forty days past Christmas, the candle aspect actually arises from the day’s real observance, previously the Purification of Mary, now known as the Presentation of the Lord.  Luke’s Gospel depicts Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commandments after birth by going to the Temple to make offerings, and while there they encounter the elderly Simeon, whose proclamation of Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” inspired the candle blessing several centuries later.  Though it is not included in the reading for mass, the Gospel also mentions their meeting with the prophetess Anna, who at 84 stays in the Temple praying unceasingly; she also exults in Jesus and calls him the redemption of Israel.

Recently I’ve become more acquainted with St. Brigid of Kildare, whose feast is February 1, and discovered that the Celtic imagination links her with this Gospel story.  Disregarding chronology, it is said in Ireland that Brigid accompanied Mary to the Temple, walking ahead of her with a lighted candle in each hand. Though it was windy, the candles remained lit.  Lighting my own two candles in this morning’s dusk, I was grateful for this image of female companionship in the context of renewal and light.

Three years ago on this feast, I posted here about the meaning of Mary’s purification and learned a little bit about ritual purity in the process.  I wrote this earlier post before embarking on any study of Judaism, and now I’m much more aware that we Christians tend to make too big of a deal out of purity requirements.  Impurity referred to a ritual status and was not a social stigma as often interpreted.  Anyone could become ritually impure — whether the high priest or a peasant — and there were remedies to address that state.  Hence, Mary and Joseph bring the two doves for sacrifice. Though purity laws are foreign to us and may sound oppressive, the fact of their making an offering 40 days later does provide a moment to recognize that Mary physically gave birth.  Her body went through childbirth, and she engaged in a religious ritual afterward.  Besides eliminating that bodily association, the “Presentation of the Lord” as the main liturgical focus for February 2 is inaccurate historically.  The Jewish Annotated New Testament indicates that there was no requirement or custom of presenting children in the Temple.

Lots to think about today!

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From the Heart

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. 3 And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine linen;  . . . “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. 9 Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”
– Exodus 25

My husband and I and a friend are attending a Torah study series at the synagogue behind our house (the senior rabbi is a neighbor and friend). In a delightful coincidence yesterday, we studied the above passage — in which God instructs Moses to solicit from all the people to build a tabernacle that they will carry with them in their travels — immediately after we heard a homily at mass that addressed new financial needs at our parish due to increased facility costs.  All parishioners are being asked to consider how we can contribute to offset these new expenses, and this Torah portion presents beautiful imagery to aid in such reflection.

The rabbi noted that the tabernacle is the first Jewish institution, and from this text we see that it belongs to everyone; therefore all are responsible for contributing to build and maintain it.  It’s a requirement of community that extends to time and talent, not just money. The name for this portion is “T’rumah,” which comes from a Hebrew root that means “to raise up,” meaning to set aside for and dedicated to a sacred use. As arms were raised in the Temple to present a gift, contributing to the tabernacle is a way of giving of oneself to God for the community.  It elevates the gift (i.e. money) beyond its materiality.  (We immediately connected this image with the priest’s gesture of elevation in the mass.)

Although there is expectation of everyone, the text also states that gifts come from those “whose heart so moves him.” (or her) In Judaism the heart encompasses the totality of a person, especially the inner self, so the gift to build the sanctuary is meant to come from that center.  Underscoring the relationship between individual action and community result, later rabbinical sayings are that all gifts from the heart are equal no matter what their amount and that if everyone doesn’t give, the sanctuary can’t be built.

Why does God need a building anyway?  If you read it closely and note the grammar, the text actually says that the people should build the sanctuary so that God can dwell among them, not in it.  We the people need a physical place to go to experience God — in community — even though God is everywhere.

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Art of Surprise

Motherhood, 1897

Motherhood, 1897

Before this weekend, all I knew about the artist Elizabeth Nourse is that she was from Cincinnati and she painted mothers and babies. Both statements are true, but there’s so much more to appreciate about her!  I’m very glad to have happened into an exhibit of her work at the Cincinnati Art Museum on Saturday.

454px-Elisabeth_Nourse_Self-PortraitAt the entry, Nourse’s 1892 self-portrait greets visitors and immediately establishes that she took herself and her art seriously.  She appears hard at work, hair slightly askew.  Her determined gaze looks out, seeming ready for any challenge.  Born in 1859, she and her twin sister were the youngest of ten children, and they grew up in Mt. Healthy, a community northwest of downtown which was a center for abolitionists and perhaps influenced her painting. 1924.490_CAMAn early work called “Head of a Girl” appears early in the exhibit near Nourse’s self-portrait and warmly portrays a young African-American girl at a time when such a dignified treatment was rare.

Beginning at age 15, Nourse studied for seven years at the McMicken School of Design, then for a few years in New York and Tennessee before moving to France with her older sister in 1887.  With Paris as her home base, she traveled and painted in Europe, Russia, and North Africa for the rest of her life.

Head of an Algerian, 1898

Head of an Algerian, 1898

In fact, this artist who painted women and children with such realism and sensitivity never married or had a child of her own.  She supported herself and her sister through her art, and her appreciation for diverse people continued to be reflected in her work. Nourse was the first American woman to be voted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.  She also had the honor of having one of her paintings purchased by the French government and adopted into the Luxembourg Museum’s permanent collection.

Her family struggled financially when Nourse was growing up, and besides her successful artistic career, Elizabeth consistently reached out to others throughout her life.  She loved to sew, and the exhibit states that as an adult she sewed and altered clothing for those in need, remembering her own childhood.  She also made cloth dolls, two of which are displayed in the exhibit. During World War I,  she remained in Paris assisting war refugees and solicited funds from friends in the United States and Canada to provide aid. She received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in 1921 for “distinguished service to humanity.” She died at age 78 in 1938.

I still gravitate to Nourse’s images of motherhood, because they portray the fullness of the experience with such power.  They are sweetly beautiful without being sentimental or cliche.  The maternal images are even more meaningful when seen in the larger context of all her subject matter.  In my writing about spirituality and childbirth, my fervent desire has been to articulate the significance of birth in a woman’s life in a way that does not limit our purpose to the biological capacity to bear children.  Elizabeth Nourse feels like a kindred spirit for this endeavor.

On the left is an 1888 painting called “The Mother” which is in the exhibit and owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Just looking at it suggests the weight of holding a sleeping child, that willingness to remain still no matter how tired your arm or shoulder or lower back gets just so they’ll rest.  And the title, “A Mother,” underscores this impression.

On the right, “Meditation” (1902) viscerally evokes the reality of endless days tending a baby — delight in their presence, constant fatigue, and the inability to get things done.

For my Cincinnati readers, the Nourse exhibit will be on display in the Cincinnati Wing through March 2.  The Museum’s acquisition of her large painting “The First Communion,” considered a masterpiece, occasioned this special showing of her work.

More info:  “Ritual Reflections” in Ohio magazine, January 2014

Posted in Art and Creative Expression, Motherhood | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Octave of Epiphany

The practice of celebrating a feast for eight days – an “octave” – was a longstanding custom of the church that was greatly reduced after Vatican II. I only learned about it in casual conversation with my father-in-law years ago.  I don’t remember how it came up, but he mentioned that Epiphany was a “privileged” octave, meaning that no other feasts would be observed during those days; therefore, Epiphany ranked higher than the Octave of Christmas, right behind Easter and Pentecost.  I rather like the extended time to consider the themes of a feast or holiday. (He and I also have spoken over the years about how we both enjoy the “octave” of our birthdays.)  As a feast of insight and new awareness, Epiphany especially seems to warrant multiple days of reflection.  Counting from January 6, today is the end of the octave, but if you count from the Sunday, it’s tomorrow. 

I spent Epiphany Sunday immersed in the lovely wisdom of Jan Richardson’s Women’s Christmas retreat as severe winter weather took hold outside.  Two particular questions from her material stood out like neon signs on a dark street. Both concern the use of time, on a daily level and in the larger context of ongoing involvements, both of which I grapple with constantly. 

“In the press of each day, how will I make choices that allow me to feel some freedom about time – that it is spacious, that I will have enough?”

“How to say no even to invitations that are attractive in order to say yes to what I am most meant to do.”

Focusing on small steps, I’m trying to begin each day not by making a to-do list but trying to name my priorities for the day.  I sit quietly for a bit to let them surface, and I weigh the relative importance of different possible tasks for that day.  And I set aside for this day the items that are not priority.  Traditional to-do lists always defeat me; I lose heart because they’re too long!  A bigger goal that the priority list might address is my ongoing endeavor to minimize time wasted on social media by bringing greater intention to my use of Facebook etc.  (I note the irony of blogging about this!)

During the Octave of Epiphany, perhaps it was a gift of magi wisdom that empowered me last week to turn down an appealing opportunity to take a workshop on Healing Touch.  It was only two days long and would have allowed me to offer this ministry at the food pantry where I volunteer, but even so finally I realized it would draw energy away from current commitments that are really important to me.  And then the days would be crowded, not spacious.  Yes!

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