US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: Enduring Lives

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By Carol Lee Flinders (Orbis, 2013)

In a previous study, Carol Lee Flinders profiled some of the best-known women among medieval Christian mystics: Teresa of Àvila, Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich. After publishing that book, she began to wonder what women like Clare, Teresa, and Julian might be doing if they were living today.

In Enduring Lives: Portraits of Women and Faith in Action, Flinders selects four women from a multitude of worthy candidates to reprise the roles of those medieval mystics: Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist; Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who perished at Auschwitz; Jane Goodall, an anthropologist; and Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist priest.

The book asks a universal question: From what and where do humans get the capacity to decide that any other group sharing this planet is less worthy, simply by being “other”? How each woman, in her own unique way, addresses the follow-up question “What do we do about it?” becomes the substance of each narrative. Each could stand alone on its own worth.

Sister Helen Prejean offers compassionate care to the “others” who our prisons hold in cages and sometimes kill. For Etty Hillesum, not even the Gestapo of Nazi Germany was excluded from her all-embracing love. From Jane Goodall’s perspective, humans too often exploit nature, especially our animals, as “the other.” She chose to live with a community of chimpanzees—to teach and to be taught. Tenzin Palmo, seeing oneness in the entire universe, strives to eliminate all perceptions of “otherness.”

Quantum physics holds that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Each of the women is loving our world toward “wholeness.” Selfless love for every living community will be the antidote for the “us and them,” “insiders and outsiders,” human exploiters and the natural world.

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, page 43).