“No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”
– Catherine McAuley, 1778 to 1841
It’s Women’s History Month and today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a growing, worldwide observation.
A while ago, I found myself thinking about my time teaching high school in Chicago. In part, I was thinking about the experience of being a classroom teacher but it was more than that. I was thinking about the community into which I was welcomed and which truly helped form me as a person, as a Christian, as a servant, and — ironically — as a man. I say “ironically” because the Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School was a women’s school: a high school for women, led by women, which prided itself on raising up thoughtful, creative, faithful, strong, courageous women. And they did just that, in droves. Back then, I was one among, maybe, 9 or 10 male teachers. Most of the maintenance staff and a few of the administrative staff were also men. That made, oh, about 16 of us — on a good day. 16 amidst 1,800 students (all girls) and maybe 150 faculty and staff. It made finding a men’s bathroom, for instance, a bit of a challenge, but the good news is that once you found one the lines were always short!
It was, for me, a great experience to be in such a pronounced minority and, more so, to be part of a tradition which is, even today, counter-cultural, radical, different. It confirmed for me that those spiritualities which run against the grain of this world offer the greatest possibilities of new life.
I needed that, and I needed it (though I hardly knew I did) at that precise moment in my life. At 24 years young, I’d already experienced the odd faith formation of growing up in a Christian congregation which was in mourning that it was no longer at the center of the community and starting to die, and I’d just come out of three years of profoundly challenging, formative, but also spirit-numbing education at a predominately secular divinity school. I needed creativity, vitality, liveliness, and yet I couldn’t walk away from all that intellectual stuff I loved. I needed balance.
On a rainy afternoon in early June 2000, I went to an interview at a school which, I thought, wouldn’t even think to hire me to teach theology — a man, an Episcopalian, at that, and someone who’s never had any teaching experience, ever. I was so convinced they wouldn’t hire me that I didn’t even wear a tie. “I’m going there to get ‘interview experience,'” I told a friend. A few hours after I walked in and was given a tour and went through a round of interviews the Principal, Sr. Rose, offered me a job. I said I’d need to think about it. Walking out onto the circle drive which led to the school’s front doors, the morning rain had cleared and it was sunny and starting to get warm. I got in my car and knew I had to say yes. About 15 minutes later, I called back and accepted.
I’m forever grateful I said yes.
One reason, I suppose, I was thinking about all of that a while ago is because I was working on a sermon about women and Christianity. The New Testament lesson for an upcoming Sunday was from Acts of the Apostles chapter 16, in which Paul on one of his missionary journeys runs into Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth.” Lydia gets baptized along with her whole house, and it’s surmised that Lydia not only became a Christian but also served as a patron and sponsor of early Christianity — she even founded a church in her own home. Obviously, I was thinking about early Christianity’s gender inclusivity which was, to them, nothing really to be thought about or discussed. They just did it. They welcomed men and women into leadership positions, because their Master and Lord had already done so. They didn’t practice inclusivity for a better marketing slant or to be more relevant or hip. That’s who they knew themselves to be, a new people in Christ, so to do anything different would be to defy their own nature.
One of my colleagues in the Theology Department, while I was teaching, used to reserve the Community Room — an expansive room down the hall from the theology classrooms. When the girls got to her classroom door, they noticed a sign which read something like: “Go to Lydia’s home (i.e., the Community Room).” There, they met their teacher dressed in beautiful, flowing purple fabric. She invited them to come in. They sat in a wide circle on the floor and lit candles and shared a meal and sang songs and read scripture and said prayers and reflected on their life. Then the bell would ring and off they’d go to their next class — geometry or chemistry or english or history or painting. Lydia was, to them, new, different, odd, unusual, counter-cultural.
Lydia was all those things to the secular communities in which early Christianity grew, too. Reading the New Testament, I’m often struck that so many of Jesus’ earliest followers were, in the eyes of their world, strange. And it’s not that they didn’t notice or didn’t care or get hurt — emotionally, perhaps, but I’m also thinking about the demands of physical persecution — but, rather, they simply couldn’t live differently than the way they knew to be in Christ. Spontaneity abounded. Wherever God the Holy Spirit was moving that’s where they went. Creativity pulsed through their message. They rejoiced when they could come together and wept when they parted, but they weren’t entirely tears of sadness. Conflict was rife. Because of which, I’ve always thought, they grew.
The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago is named after the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, who set out to do a new thing in nineteenth century Dublin. She set out to make that society a little bit more just and liveable, and her only viable option was to form a new religious order. From what I gather, reading a bit between the lines, Catherine wasn’t entirely thrilled about becoming in the world’s understanding a “nun.” This isn’t altogether clear from the history books which celebrate Catherine and the movement she started, but a lot of the treatment of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy charism, I found, were somewhat hagiographic and romanticized.
I’ve often wondered if today Catherine would’ve been a social worker or a Christian radical, but I suspect she wouldn’t have become a politician or establish a think-tank: Catherine’s gift was clearly relational, and she inspired women and, through them, men to join a movement which was fundamentally egalitarian and missional, a movement focused solely on meeting the needs of society as those needs currently presented — and present — themselves. It was the Sisters of Mercy, nicknamed the ‘walking nuns’ because without hesitation they abandoned a cloistered lifestyle and quickly responded to the needs of the poor, who travelled in the early days alongside waves of second generation immigrants, most notably the Irish, to New York and Boston and Chicago. It was those same Sisters of Mercy who established the first hospital and initial schools in late-19th century Chicago, that wild west, frontier town. In part they were nurses and caregivers and teachers and servants. On another level they were radicals — teaching young women basic skills so they wouldn’t need to be dependent on men; affirming that a woman’s voice is just as clear as a man’s; forging a place for balance and mission in a church and world, in many ways, ordered against such values.
I think it’s important that we, Christians, put in some hard work to learn a language and re-brand a set of symbols that are, at their heart, counter-cultural, challenging, different, other and, in that, profoundly life-giving. The cross is the very definition of such a symbol, isn’t it? Talk about strange, ironic, challenging and life-giving. This is a kind of Lenten discipline we’d be wise to invest in, kindling once again the value of being ‘other.’
It’s already a part of our story. Look no further than Lydia or Catherine or any of those women — and men — doing a new thing today.