Want to understand the Catholic Church in which I and my peers grew up?
There's a great scene in a great movie, 1959's "The Nun's Story." The film is directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also did "High Noon." It is a classic cinematic treatment of a woman's real life (It's based on a true story).
Audrey Hepburn plays Sister Luke, the daughter of a famous surgeon. Her only goal in life is to become a nun and a nurse who does medical work in the Belgian Congo. She enters a convent and gives up everything – her hair, her name, her memories. She becomes a kind of machine. The moment the bell rings her out of bed in the morning, she must fall to her knees and begin praying. She can't look at her face in a mirror. She can't reminisce. All she is allowed to have is her power to serve.
She's not even allowed to have her excellent mind. Her Mother Superior orders her to fail her medical exam as an exercise is self-abnegation.
Audrey Hepburn played many pixie, gamine roles where she was somehow always falling in love with a man much older than she was – Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire (!!!). Filmmakers recognized that Hepburn, youthful as she was, had a gravitas that few age-peer male actors could match. So they hitched her to grandpa.
In "The Nun's Story," though, Hepburn plays a very, very smart nun so powerfully you feel you are watching a documentary. As Sister Luke sits down to take her oral medical exam, she struggles to give incorrect answers to questions. Good Catholic girls are obedient, and she wishes to obey her mother superior.
The examiners are astounded. They know this woman. They know her mind could dance rings around these questions.
As the exam progresses, and as the viewer's hands knot up in her lap, something gives. Sister Luke begins to give all the correct answers to the questions. I can hear Hepburn even now; the scene is so powerful I remember the replies. She talks about where malaria hides in the body of its vector, the mosquito.
Sister Luke disobeyed Mother Superior. She is guilty of the sin of pride – she showed off her great mind. While Sister Luke's intellectual inferiors are given coveted assignments to serve in the Belgian Congo, Sister Luke is punished for passing the medical exam with such high marks. She is sent to an insane asylum. There she will work with the most dangerous patients. One of them physically assaults her.
That's the Catholic Church in which I grew up. One in which one must not be proud, especially if one is a woman. One in which a woman may not be smart. That was for boys. One in which you were punished for knowing something your superiors did not know, especially if you were female.
That Catholic Church is not dead and gone. When I interact, not with the folks in the pews, but with anyone – anyone – who has any status, title, or authority in the church – I constantly feel that I am to shut up and let the superiors do it. Whatever it is. And to hold them in awe, and to erase my female self.
Even when I was a kid, I recognized that this was sick and wrong. If I ever do leave the Catholic Church, misogyny will be the primary reason.
Yes, a Mother Teresa can obtain superstar status. But a little girl, or her grown-up peer, who knows the answer that her superior does not know is still persona non grata, in my experience.
Jesus does say a lot about humility. "The last shall be first and the first shall be last." But he never ordered women to act dumb. But he also did not hide his own intelligence, and he was happy to have intelligent conversations with women.
His longest conversation, and it is a deep one spanning society and theology, is with a woman – the Samaritan woman at the well. He also discussed heavy matters with Mary, and chided Martha when she gave her sister Mary a hard time about conversing with Jesus when there was housework to be done. Jesus said, "No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand so that those who enter might see the light."
People like Sister Luke's Mother Superior told generations of girls to hide their light under a bushel basket.
Their job is to shine.
Today's Lent meditation is brought to you by the eight of coins, a card that shows an industrious person creating – and proudly displaying his creations for the world to see, assess, and perhaps benefit by.