Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Roberta C. Bondi
eBook Category: Spiritual/Religion
eBook Description: When the hearing and telling of stories captures our imaginations, we are enabled at the deepest level to take our lives seriously. By envisioning other worlds, we are rendered capable of listening to God and to ourselves, and of growing in God's image. This is how Roberta Bondi comes to tell stories in this book, stories that were formed in a life of prayer. They reflect on life's turning points and how these are made both more difficult and more open to grace by the Christian understandings of naming God as father and mother; the significance of rationality; and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Bondi discovered that what she had regarded as her personal, private stories were not really so private or idiosyncratic after all when they were seen in the intersection of her beliefs, family experience, and cultural expectations. We are drawn into thelogical reflection on the stories of one woman only to discover there our own stories, our own memories, all stored in the memory of God.
eBook Publisher: United Methodist Publishing House/Abingdon Press, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2003
The following book is a collection of stories. When I was a child I loved stories. A timid little girl who was afraid of everything, I loved the stories of the brave Madeleine: "She was not afraid of mice; she loved winter, snow and ice. To the tiger in the zoo, Madeleine just said 'pooh, pooh.' " A lonely child who could never seem to fit in, I loved fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Ugly Duckling. A child who worried about God and the cosmic meanings of things, I loved stories from the Old. Testament. I particularly favored ones featuring children: Joseph and his brothers, Isaac and Abraham, and Ruth, whom I always pictured not as an adult woman but as a little girl like me.
For me, as for almost all children, I suspect, stories were not just entertainment; they were my lifeblood. They helped me make sense of myself, my family, and my world. True, they sometimes gave me explanations of who I should be and why I was unhappy that were destructive to me as a female child. They also, however, offered me new ways of seeing and thinking about things that stretched me far beyond my childhood unhappiness to envision other ways of being, other worlds. The Madeleine stories did this for me, reared as I was according to the model of the perfect, pliant, ladylike little girl. So did the story of Joseph, who was hated by his brothers for his interpretation of dreams, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery in Egypt, where he finally was made ruler.
During my high school and college years I continued to love stories for the same reasons. Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Camus's Plague, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles were among my favorites. They talked explicitly about God, and the significance and goal of human lives, and in that unhappy and confused period of my life I had a voracious appetite for these subjects. In significant ways, I believe now, these novels, along with most others that I read, hurt me as they reinforced the stereotypes of women I was already receiving from my larger culture of the late fifties and early sixties. Nevertheless, it was thinking about all these things through the lenses of the adult stories I encountered that equipped me to tell myself my own story, to question, to imagine, to interpret in new ways my life and the world in which I lived. It wasn't comfortable a lot of the time, and it even got me in trouble, but it was worth it. Though at the time I wouldn't have articulated it to myself in these terms, I knew that this was what theology was about.
When I got to seminary, however, I encountered something else. In the sixties liberalism of theological education there was a hierarchy of truth. There, theology was an esoteric discipline that did not like stories, even biblical stories, unless they were of the sort like The Old Man and the Sea and Waiting for Godot that could be stripped free of their particulars in order to get at the universal meaning of their symbolism. This was because serious theology concerned itself only with what theologians assumed was universally true. It did not waste its time addressing the personal and the "subjective," the everyday or the particular. Certainly, there was no room in theology to raise any of the kinds of questions I had, especially those connected with my own experience as a female human being. Theology was abstract, logical, prepositional, and systematic, and so was its God.
This hurt. Still, since I wanted to be a serious person and do serious work, during the years of my graduate work at Oxford I tried to exchange my habit of thinking about my own life through the medium of stories for "objective" thinking. I did my best to hold my "objective" self separate from my pressing questions about what the material I was studying had to say to me as a woman. I became a historian of Christian thought, and I was successful enough at it that I was able to write a good dissertation on the most abstract and central of all patristic theological topics, the christological controversies of the fifth century.
It was during the same graduate years, however, that I also discovered in the writings of the early church the ancient, not so "serious" monastic tradition. The monastic teachers of the first generations of monasticism approached the great questions of human life and the way God relates to us not through abstract theological statements but through the medium of sayings and stories that take the world of individual experience very seriously. This discovery of a congenial way of doing theology in the early tradition was wonderful for me. Though at that time there was no respectable way to talk about this theological tradition in academic circles back home, it was this early monastic way of thought that really aided me in beginning to think through some of the painful questions that gripped me.
Once I started teaching, however, I felt obligated to teach the history of early Christian thought in the same mode as I had been taught it by my own teachers. At the same time I was only too aware that by making this choice I was perpetuating in my students the same problems I had had in my own education. I was stifling their most pressing questions and encouraging them to believe that reflection on their own experience in light of the theology they were studying was only a private, pious exercise. Yet even in my seminary and graduate years I always knew that what should make theology valuable was precisely what was being rejected as not theology.
Theology, I would now say, is about saving lives, and the work of theology, to use Rebecca Chopp's phrase, is saving work. First, it involves learning to see the ways in which false images of God, ourselves, and the world have bound us and taken away the life God intends for us. Second, it involves learning to know God as God is, as a healing God, and learning to know ourselves, individually and communally, as people who correspond with that God in whose image we are made. Third, it involves imagining a future that is consistent with the God we come to know.
We can do this saving work, I believe, however, only as our imagination is captured, and we are able at the deepest level to take our own experience, our own lives seriously. For this reason, I began to teach more and more of the literature of the early church that made use of stories, sayings, and saints' lives to talk about the real human experience that theology is supposed to address, and I increasingly encouraged my students in the classroom to find ways to bring their own experience and theological convictions into conversation with the ancient material.
While this new way of teaching was evolving, I also began a daily discipline of prayer that committed me to facing many issues that had hurt me for a long time. The method of this prayer involved a careful and painful examination of my life and of my corresponding theology as it had affected me since childhood. As part of the process, I often found myself recounting to myself stories of my own life in the presence of God. From the beginning I found the telling of these stories amazingly helpful in all sorts of ways. I gained embarrassing but freeing insights into what I actually believed in my heart about God, the world, myself, and other peoples opposed to what I had thought I believed, but didn't. I learned fairly early on, for example, that whatever I had wanted to believe about God as loving, what I really believed was that God's favorite activity was criticizing and condemning.
Also becoming clear to me through the telling of my stories in my prayer was how often what I had regarded as my own personal, private hurts were really not so private or idiosyncratic when they were seen in the context of the intersection of my theological beliefs, my family experience, and the larger world of modern and ancient cultural expectations into which my theology and my personal experience fit. This was particularly true with a whole range of difficulties I had around the issue of being female, but it was true with many other issues for me as well.
Once all this began to become clearer, I found myself able to begin to re-envision at the intellectual level other actual theological possibilities, another future for my own life, as well as for the life of the church and of human society itself. But how to move from theoretical possibilities to knowing them as true in your very bones? Luke reports Jesus to have told his disciples "ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you." For me, it was only as I was able to tell these stories of my own life to God that I was even able to hear for myself what it was I needed to ask God for, to ask for it, and to receive it.
Nevertheless, having been well trained by my education not to talk in scholarly circles about anything so private and personal as my own life, much less about prayer, I would not even have dreamed of writing about what I was learning about any of this until a few years ago, when I began to attend a series of summer consultations at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. These consultations were conducted in such a way that for a week each summer the various participants would gather to discuss a single theological theme, such as incarnation or the content of Christian hope. Though the themes differed from year to year, every summer the consultations began the same way: during the first two days each of us was asked to reflect on the theological topic under discussion, not as good representatives of the traditions we came from but through the lens of our own experience.
The process of telling and listening to these stories was hard work. Though I had begun in my prayer to know the significance of telling God and myself stories of my life, I had never been asked to talk publicly about the meaning of a particular Christian doctrine specifically in this way, nor had I had the chance to listen to other people's stories. It took thinking about what we had believed in the past and in the present as well as what the history of Christian thought had had to say on the topic. It demanded a serious consideration of what in our lives had brought us to believe as we did, and how our convictions had been helpful or hurtful to us as children, as adults, as women and men, as members of our Christian communities, and as citizens.
For myself, I found this approach to theology incredibly profitable. To begin, there was the matter of wonder and gratitude. In organizing the "facts" of my life I was asked for, I was struck in a way I never had been before by a kind of awe and gratitude to God for the gift of my own particular life, of the very life I had led. Never before, I think, had I actually been glad that I was me and not somebody else. This was half the gift. The other half came as I listened to other people reflecting theologically on their own very diverse experiences. Just to hear their stories filled me in a new way with a holy wonder and gratitude both for the reality of each separate human life and the mystery of God's presence in it.
Second, there was the matter of the universal and the individual, the public and the private. It was only in bringing myself to talk in front of the other consultation members about what I had been trained to regard as academically and socially taboo that I really could see for myself how deep and how wrong is the split we assume we must make between the publicly acceptable and the private in our churches and in academics. As individuals this split between public and private silences us on the very things that matter to us most. It makes us unable to fight for ourselves, or even to imagine new ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. It makes our churches, our families, and our friendships boring and sometimes even deadly. It causes us to compartmentalize or try to discard parts of ourselves that don't fit with the publicly acceptable.
This split makes us forget that our private, experiencing "selves," even our Christian selves, do not come unmediated from our own insides or even from God. Rather, we are formed in very complex ways by our social experiences of family, church, school, and friends, by our larger culture and its expectations, as well as by scripture, and by the Christian tradition. Failing to recognize the communal origins of our "private" selves makes us identify points of pain in ourselves as "personal problems," and as a result we are not able to see how often the "personal" is, in fact, intimately linked with the social and cultural. This observation, of course, has been one of the great insights of the women's movement in the last few decades.
But how can we ever be healed theologically, individually, unless we refuse to accept a split in our own selves between what is publicly and what is privately acceptable -- until we can find a way to tell our own stories, hear one another's stories, and learn to tell them again in new ways? Until we can talk about our prayer and our theological convictions and our life experiences as all part of the same piece? At Collegeville, I finally accepted that the theological work of telling one another our stories, of talking about the ways in which our concrete and particular experiences intersected with the great Christian doctrines was not private work, or work done only on behalf of each of us as individuals. It was a common work, real theology done in order to find a way to claim for our own time and our own generation what it means to be Christian.
Gradually, as I prayed, taught, and thought about all of this I began to conceive of a theological project in which, by means of reflecting on my own life stories, I could write about several theological issues that had been crucial to me and to many other people I knew over the years as well. I wanted to do it for three reasons. First, I wanted to be able to contribute to the ongoing communal theological conversation among God's people about what various Christian doctrines mean and don't mean in our time, especially to many women. Second, I desired to encourage others to join in the conversation, to think about, seek healing, and write about their own lives in the same manner. Finally, I longed especially to write such a book as an act of gratitude to God for the gift of my own life, and for the individual lives of my dear teachers from the early church, for those of my mother and my father, for my aunt, my husband and my children, my students, my friends, and for all those others who share their lives with me.
For a long time my doubts about the project were greater than my confidence that I could or should do it. I told myself that I was a church historian, not, after all, really a theologian. I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. I worried that people would think me egocentric for writing about my own life. I didn't want to seem like religious fanatic. I wasn't sure that I wanted to say publicly all that I needed to say about the ways in which I had been hurt as a woman within the tradition of the church, and I was concerned that I was getting so far away from my training in objectivity as well as from the early Egyptian monasticism I loved.
In such a frame of mind, I could not bring myself to begin. Then one night, I had a dream. In my dream I was sitting on a shiny black iron bench surrounded by all my luggage in a cool, dimly lit train station in Egypt. Three colleagues who had come to the station with me to see me off were sitting across from me. To my right through an enormous arch I could see and smell the beautiful golden desert I loved, with its dark shadows, its crumbling, columned churches, and the ruined huts of its ancient Christian teachers. To my left were the train tracks running through the station past another huge arch that opened out behind the backs of my waiting companions. Directly in front of me, through this second arch was the place to which I was about to travel. It was a wide field in western Kentucky, my mother's family home. The sky above the field was intensely blue and very high. A dark split-rail fence surrounded the field. In the distance beyond the fence lay soft hills, and just inside the fence a row of tall trees stripped of their leaves for winter. The ground of the field was covered with snow, and there had been an ice storm. Each branch and every twig of trees of that field was clothed in ice, and the ice, which reflected every ray of the sun, shone and twinkled like diamonds.
The next day I began to write these stories.
Copyright © 1995 by Abingdon Press